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State of the Birds Report

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                At a Glance

• Private forest lands cover 468 million acres and are important bird habitat: nearly half the distribution of 151 obligate forest birds is on private forest lands.

• Private forests provide 92% of our nation’s timber harvest and can keep large forest blocks intact. Strong timber markets encourage landowners to maintain working forests.

• Private forests often provide habitat for birds that live in young forests, such as American Woodcock and Golden-winged Warbler.

• Tens of millions of private forest acres are managed under sustainable forestry certification programs that protect biodiversity.

Image: Eastern White Pine by Joseph O' Brien, USDA Forest Service,  
Restore the habitat and the wildlife will come.
Valer Austin, El Coronado Ranch, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Forest Birds on Private Lands

Forests on private lands comprise 54% of American forest land cover on 468 million acres. The health and conservation of about 310 forest-breeding bird species nationwide are highly dependent on private lands that maintain forest cover and preserve the integrity of forest ecosystems. About 46% of the U.S. distribution of 151 obligate forest birds, on average, is on private land. Neotropical migrant songbirds of eastern forests are particularly dependent on private forests, especially steeply declining species of young and disturbed forests, such as Brown Thrasher (93% distribution on private lands). A suite of obligate subtropical-forest birds occurs nearly entirely on private lands in south Texas, including 91% of the population of endangered Golden-cheeked Warblers. Privately owned oak woodlands in California are essential habitats for Yellow-billed Magpies (92% distribution on private lands) and several other western forest species of high concern.

American Woodcock by Gerrit Vyn 
  Private forest owners can create bird habitat  
  Forest landowners can do many things to create and maintain bird habitat on their property.

• Retain large forest patches with corridors between patches, wherever possible;

• Retain some standing dead trees (snags) and dying trees for cavity-nesting birds;

• Mimic natural disturbance regimes with tree-harvesting treatments;

• Encourage native tree species and minimize over browsing by cattle or deer;

• Create forest buffers along riparian and other wetland areas;

• Work with a forester and/or wildlife biologist to create a forest management plan that addresses
wildlife goals;

• Work with nearby landowners or public agencies to coordinate forest management and control harmful invasive species;

• Create a succession plan with your family to ensure the sustainable future of your land.


Julita and Tom Pollard worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and their local Natural Resources Conservation Service office on a forest stewardship plan for their 90 acres of hardwoods in Iowa. Their plan called for tree thinning—completed with NRCS technical assistance—that will reinvigorate young oak trees in their forest. Photo by Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS, Iowa. 


Private Forest Ownership and Conservation

Most private forest land (62%) is owned by individuals, families, and other unincorporated groups. For many family forest owners, multiple factors—such as aesthetic or recreational values, passing land on to heirs, and nature protection—figure heavily into their forest management decisions. 

Corporations and other private groups primarily engaged in timber production own the other 38% of private forest land. Economic forces play a major role in land-use patterns on private forest lands, because the primary motivation for many private landowners to keep their land forested is often by necessity financial. In particular, timber markets influence landowner incentives to retain ownership of forest land, especially for corporate forest landowners who own or manage large blocks of working forest (See Private Lands Conservation Spotlight: Bird Habitat on Timberlands). Active timber management can provide essential habitat for game birds such as American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse, as well as declining songbirds such as Golden-winged Warbler. Tens of millions of forest acres in the U.S. are managed under sustainable forestry certification programs with requirements for respecting and protecting biodiversity, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (60 million acres), Forestry Stewardship Council (35 million acres), and American Tree Farm System (20 million acres).

Programs that encourage landowners to conserve or manage their forests, and offer advice on forest certification and development of forest management plans, include the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Stewardship Program. Additionally, 13.4 million acres of private forest are owned and managed specifically for conservation purposes by The Nature Conservancy, Audubon chapters, and regional or local land trusts.

Forest Ownership Across the U.S. 

Nearly 11 million private landowners are stewards of 468 million acres of U.S. forests, nearly all in the lower 48 states. Compared with publicly owned forests, private forests tend to be in smaller parcels, consist of more young forest (less than 20 years old), and are often embedded in fragmented agricultural or urban landscapes. Private ownership of forest varies greatly across regions, from 25% in the Rocky Mountains to 86% in the Southeast. Corporate timberlands are often large, contiguous blocks, especially in the northern hardwood forests of Maine, the Great Lakes states, and the Pacific Northwest, as well as in southeastern pine forests. These timberlands provide a mosaic of forest ages and structures often not present on public lands in the same regions. Corporate timberlands are largely protected from fragmentation and development, as long as they remain commercially viable.  

United States

Patterns of forest ownership across the U.S.
(from U.S. Forest Service General Technical
Report 2008).

Challenges for Bird Conservation on Private Forests

The single largest threat to private forests is increased parcelization, or the breaking up of blocks of forest land into smaller blocks, often for sale and development. Forests are being lost and fragmented due to depressed timber values and higher economic gains from residential development or agricultural expansion. Pressures to sell off land can result in new management objectives that do not include maintaining forest habitat. Strong timber markets help reduce this pressure. Conservation easements—between private landowners and federal, state, or non-profit conservation groups—also provide incentives to private forest owners, in exchange for agreements to continue to manage working forests and maintain contiguous forest blocks in perpetuity to benefit birds and other wildlife.

Because parcels of private forest are often small, and landscapes with many private forests can have multiple owners, a coordinated approach to controlling invasive species, fire management, or over-browsing by white-tailed deer is much more difficult than on large public lands. Corporate and family forest owners often must balance the needs of timber production, recreation, livestock grazing, and other economic benefits with those of wildlife or nature. Many programs are available to private owners of forest lands that provide incentives for conservation. 


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