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State of the Birds Report

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Bird Habitat on Timberlands

Photo by Audubon Vermont

  Working Forests that Work for Birds  
  Machias River, Maine courtesy of TNC  
  Several programs help private forest owners manage working timberlands as habitat for forest birds (see directory).

In Maine, the Machias River Project—a partnership of the Forest Legacy Program of the Northeast Area, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, The Nature Conservancy Maine Chapter, and others—protected 60,000 acres of forest from development via purchases and easements. These private timberlands will be sustainably managed and connect to more than 340,000 acres of other protected lands, creating a mega-block of contiguous habitat for 28 bird species of conservation concern, including Canada Warbler. "This is an ecological and an economic win," said Bill Cherry, a coordinator for local watershed councils.

Technical assistance also helps landowners include birds in their forest management plans. Foresters for the Birds, a joint project of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and Audubon Vermont, gathered Audubon biologists and more than 100 foresters for bird-friendly forestry seminars. Participating foresters attended training sessions on timber practices beneficial for bird habitat, then partnered with an Audubon biologist to assess forest bird habitat on a property that they manage.

Working forests across the U.S. provide important habitat for the majority of forest bird species, especially in eastern forests where 85% to 95% of many bird distributions are on private land. These lands often complement and buffer bird habitats on nearby public lands to create larger contiguous blocks of habitat across landscapes that are essential for area-sensitive species such as Wood Thrush and Scarlet Tanager. Timberlands (forests available to be managed for industrial wood products) covered 514.2 million forest acres in the U.S. in 2007. About 20%, or 106.1 million acres, of those timberlands were in corporate ownership, and about 49% (250.4 million acres) were in private non-corporate ownership such as family-owned forests. Working forests are a critical source of raw material for industries that contribute to the economies of many states. In 2006, about 92% of wood harvested in the U.S. came from privately owned timberland.

Changing ownership patterns of private working forests over the last decade represent changing conservation opportunities for important bird habitat. Most forest products companies that previously owned both land and manufacturing facilities have sold their timberland to agencies, conservation organizations, individuals, timber investment management organizations, real estate investment trusts, and other entities. Manufacturing companies now primarily obtain their wood from logging contractors or by interacting directly with private owners. Economic returns from producing this wood provide incentives for landowners to maintain forests rather than convert them to other uses that could degrade or fragment valuable bird habitat and allow forested landscapes to give way to urban or exurban development.

Corporate and non-corporate landowners often manage working forests under programs with standards, guidelines, or regulations that conserve ecosystem functions and services. Many states offer property tax reductions to landowners who commit to long-term forest management in a forest stewardship plan or forest certification programs for multiple resource management planning. The three most common sustainable certification programs in the U.S.—Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council, and American Tree Farm System—all require forest managers to include biological diversity conservation in their forestry practices (such as retention of snags and downed wood as habitat features and conservation of old-growth forests). Sustainable forestry certification systems therefore offer tremendous potential for large and small private forest owners to contribute to regional bird conservation objectives. Many wood-product manufacturers and lumber retailers also provide information to consumers about the benefits of certified wood, which creates demand for sustainably grown and harvested timber.

Managers of working forests have many opportunities to create and maintain habitat for forest birds. At a large scale, vegetative and bird diversity are often greatest in landscapes where there is a mixture of managed and unmanaged forests of varying ages, ranging from forests with various harvesting intensities to those not managed at all. This is not unusual in landscapes with a mixture of ownerships with different management objectives. Working forest landscapes themselves also commonly contain a mix of habitats. Within the most intensively managed stands in working forest landscapes, managers can enhance habitat for some bird species by modifying the timing and uniformity of site preparation, by retaining structural features such as downed wood or snags, by controlling tree spacing at planting to promote abundant understory vegetation, and by thinning to minimize the time that stands are in a dense, closed-canopy condition (which isn’t optimal for many bird species). Managers can also utilize various forest management strategies to vary the age of forest stands, especially those that mimic natural disturbance regimes and support declining young-forest birds such as Golden-winged Warbler and Brown Thrasher.

Golden-winged Warbler by Gerrit Vyn 

Many private timber companies provide fine examples of working forest conservation. In Alabama, the Westervelt Company retains clumps of trees and snags on large harvests, and retains single trees and snags on virtually every harvest unit, to provide a diverse managed landscape and a wide range of bird habitats. In Arkansas, the Anderson Tully Lumber Company manages young forests to provide early successional habitat near the Arkansas and White Rivers amid a landscape dominated by publicly owned older forest. Bird surveys have found significantly higher numbers of Swainson’s Warblers on these managed lands compared to adjacent public lands. And in eastern North Carolina, Weyerhaeuser is restoring longleaf pine at the Cool Springs Environmental Center, which is actively managed as a working forest to demonstrate forestry practices that also maintain and enhance wildlife habitat, air quality, water quality, and aesthetic, recreational, and historical values. This area receives thousands of visitors annually who can see or hear Brown-headed Nuthatch, Yellow-throated Warbler, Chuck-will's-widow, and other pine specialists. Each spring, the center celebrates International Migratory Bird Day to welcome the return of the warblers.


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