Opportunities for Private Forest Owners in the Southeastern U.S.
Principal Authors: Jeremy Poirier, International Paper; Emily Jo Williams, American Bird Conservancy
As a private landowner, you may wonder, “Why should I worry about birds on my property?” First, birds hold widespread public interest, with an estimated 45 million Americans observing and feeding birds at home and on bird-related trips. Most people who watch birds — 93 percent — live in metropolitan areas, and birds can connect those people to forest lands and their many values. In addition, birding is big business. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported an estimated annual revenue of $75.9 billion from wildlife-watching expenditures.
Not only are birds fun to observe, their presence is a sign that your forest is healthy and providing important environmental functions, such as wildlife habitat and clean water. Birds help keep insect populations in check, provide food for predators and, in some cases, aid in keeping forest plant communities healthy by dispersing seeds and pollen. Birds are also interesting to study. Did you know that many of the birds that nest on your property in the spring arrive from their winter retreats thousands of miles away in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean? For example, prairie warblers, which are common in young forests in the Southeast during April through August, spend the winter months in Caribbean islands including Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and the Bahamas. Swallow-tailed kites arrive to nest in the Southeast from their wintering grounds in Brazil! Other species, such as barred owls, wild turkeys and northern cardinals, depend on your property all year. Because birds use a variety of forest types and conditions, management prescriptions intended to benefit birds can be complicated. Some birds use recently harvested areas, while others prefer older forests and/or wetlands and deep swamps. Although there is no single management tool that will benefit most or all bird species, this article highlights some effective management options that can further enhance habitat conditions for birds on your property.
Photo Credit: DARREN MILLER
THINGS TO CONSIDER: The Overall Property Variety is a key to supporting different types of birds across your property. If your property contains a variety of forest types (e.g. pine areas, hardwood areas, wetlands, etc.), you will have a higher diversity of birds than a property dominated by a single forest type. By providing a diversity of stands and varying forestry practices within these stands across your property, you can help sustain diverse and healthy bird populations. ● When pine stands are the predominant forest type, maintaining any existing and/or creating additional hardwood patches is critical for some bird species. ● Retaining a few tall pines within streamside zones or hardwood stands may provide specialized nesting sites for some birds, such as swallow-tailed kites or Mississippi kites. ● Retaining or adding small ponds and wetlands will attract wading birds and waterfowl. ● Removing invasive plants and animals will improve habitat conditions for birds and other native plants and animals. ● In pine forests of the southeastern U.S., behind thinning, prescribed fire is probably the second most important management tool that you can use to improve stand-level wildlife habitat. Prescribed fire should be used as soon as possible after thinning within mid-rotation pine stands. Prescribed fire will increase the nutritional value of understory plant species and reduce potential hazardous fuel loads. Additionally, using an herbicide treatment to remove midstory hardwoods, followed by repeated prescribed burning, is a proven management technique to improve habitat conditions for many birds and other wildlife species, such as white-tailed deer. Always be sure to follow state permitting requirements when conducting a prescribed fire. ● When prescribed fire is not feasible, some herbicide treatments can improve stand conditions and may mimic habitat conditions created with prescribed fire.
These recommendations are most likely to benefit birds when your property is surrounded mostly by large forested areas. Birds you can expect when you allow for these overall recommendations include the barred owl, swallow-tailed kite, wild turkey, hooded warbler, indigo bunting, Bachman’s sparrow, great blue heron, eastern towhee, northern cardinal, Carolina wren and so many more. If your property is surrounded by intensive agriculture or development, be aware that small stands or narrow strips of vegetation or forest could result in loss of nests and reduction of young birds fledging due to predators and brown-headed cowbird nest parasitism.
Photo Credit: FRODE JACOBSEN
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Final Harvest Conducting a final harvest, generally a clearcut in southern pine forests, will have a significant effect on bird habitat. Although some birds associated with older-age-class forests will most likely be negatively affected by a harvest, particularly if there is not older forest nearby, the new forest will create habitat conditions suitable for many bird species that require younger forests. These are known as early successional bird species or birds that are dependent on young forest conditions. Managers have several opportunities to enhance habitat conditions for birds after the final harvest. Examples include: leaving forested buffers along streams as wide as possible, starting with 50 feet on each side; retaining a generous number of both live and dead trees for perching, foraging and nesting by birds; varying clearcut size and shape, avoiding square or rectangular edges; and keeping it messy by leaving snags, downed tops, small trees and other structures.
Photo Credit: JIM GIOCOMO
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Stand Establishment Decisions made at regeneration, such as site preparation, tree spacing and retention areas, will have lasting influences throughout the life of the stand. The choices you make at stand establishment will determine habitat quality for birds both within the stand and in adjacent stands. Plant the tree species that is best suited for the site. Spacing: wider spacing allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor and encourage growth of native plants. Soften stand edges: leave some areas adjacent to roads and SMZs untreated to allow for a transition of vegetation that can provide escape cover, nesting sites and food for birds.
Photo Credit: KARL KRUEGER
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Thinning Thinning provides a financial return early in a stand’s rotation, improves growth of remaining trees, and enhances quality of wildlife habitat in planted pine stands. Open canopies allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, which in turn stimulates growth of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Thinning should occur as soon as feasible after crown closure.
This project was made possible with funding support from Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Inc. Editorial and photographic support from: Ken Meyer, Avian Research and Conservation Institute; Darren Miller, formerly Weyerhaeuser Company, currently National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI); Ben Wigley, NCASI; Jonathan Lowery, The Westervelt Company; Cliff Shackleford, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; Dave Cupp, Walsh Timber Company; Jim Rakestraw, IP; Design and Layout: Gemma Radko, ABC. ■