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State of the Birds Report

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Eastern Forests

Eastern forests encompass 430 million acres, or 22% of the land area of the contiguous 48 states, including central and northern hardwoods, mixed-conifer forests, and southern pine forests. Only 15% of eastern forests is publicly owned, much less than in the West. As urban sprawl increases dramatically, however, large blocks of public forestland are increasingly important for the long-term conservation of birds. State ownership of forests is three times greater in the East than the West, with 31 million acres of state forestlands that are extremely important for the long-term protection of eastern forest birds. More than 2 million acres of forest are protected in Great Smoky Mountains and other National Parks.

Percentage of the U.S. distribution of 34 eastern forest-breeding bird species on public vs. nonpublic lands (left). Breakdown of bird distribution on public lands shown for each public agency (right).

Eastern Forest Birds on Public Lands

Public lands support only 15% of the distribution of the 34 eastern forest obligate breeding species, a much lower percentage than in the West. About 6% is on state lands and 6% in National Forests.

Two endangered birds are also the species with the highest proportion of their geographic distribution on public forestland. Ninety-seven percent of the Kirtland’s Warbler’s small breeding distribution is on public land, with 56% on state land and 35% in National Forests. Similarly, 90% of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker distribution is on public land, including 41% in National Forests, 29% on DoD land, and 12% on state land. Publicly managed forests are critical for the recovery of these endangered species.

Mature deciduous forest species, such as Kentucky and Cerulean warblers, tend to have a higher-than-average proportion of their distribution on public lands, especially in National Forests. In contrast, common yet steeply declining birds of shrub-scrub habitats, such as Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, and Field Sparrow, have 10% or less of their distribution on public land. An exception is the Golden-winged Warbler, one of the most steeply declining songbirds in the U.S., with 30% of its distribution on public land, including 16% on state land and 12% in National Forests.

Conservation Successes

One of the nation’s most endangered bird species, the Kirtland’s Warbler, has increased in numbers and distribution in response to intense management of jack pine forests on 190,000 acres of National Forest, National Wildlife Refuge, and state lands in Michigan, including prescribed cuts and fires to restore natural conditions. These efforts represent successful partnerships among public landowners to implement recovery goals under the Endangered Species Act.

DoD lands in the Southeast have been very important for the recovery of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was the first public land unit to reach the population recovery goal of 350 nesting clusters, and the frequent fires on military lands are compatible with healthy woodpecker populations.

Conservation Challenges

As privately owned forests in the East are rapidly lost to urban and exurban development, increasing the total area of public forestland will be important for maintaining healthy populations of forest birds. Improved management of the urban-forest interface through zoning buffers, reduction of deer populations, and control of feral cats and other invasive species will also benefit bird populations. Aggressive actions to limit the effects of nonnative forest pests will be necessary for public lands to serve as future refugia for birds and other biodiversity.

Although many large forest areas are protected on public lands, historic recovery of eastern forests after a period of vast clearing for agriculture, combined with a century of fire suppression, have resulted in a loss of structural features and age diversity necessary to sustain many birds of high conservation concern, especially those dependent on forest understory and disturbance. Active management to create and maintain early successional habitats is vital for the long-term conservation of many declining species, including increased restoration of naturally disturbed habitats such as pine-barrens and oak glades.


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