Is Forest Management Harming Songbirds?

By Nickens, Eddie; Simons, Jay | American Forests, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Is Forest Management Harming Songbirds?


Nickens, Eddie, Simons, Jay, American Forests


It has been several years since Richard DeGraaf has heard a whip-poor-will sing in the big woods of New England. As chief research wildlife biologist for the USDA Forest Service's Northeast Forest Experiment Station, DeGraaf recalls when the countryside of northern Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine rang with the bobolink's bubbling refrain, the meadowlark's musical whistles, and the brown thrasher's repititious trills. No more. These days, he says, it's a treat to even hear the boisterous "drink-your-TEEEEE!" of the rufous-sided towhee.

To the untrained ear the loss of those calls might go unnoticed, but DeGraaf and other scientists know that the dwindling of this avian chorus is symptomatic of an alarming verity in the forests of America: Many of our most beloved songbird species are in a population tailspin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Breeding Bird Survey, dozens of the nation's songbird species have experienced significant population decline since the survey began in 1966.

Not since the DDT scare, which Rachel Carson described in her 1962 Silent Spring, has the nation's love affair with wild birds been so imperiled, and this at a time when bird-watching and feeding has swept new millions of Americans into a closer relationship with waterfowl, shorebirds, and the warblers that bejewel our springtime forests. As researchers from coast to coast scramble to find answers, ornithologists and forest managers are asking a crucial question: How does timber harvest affect songbirds, particularly those long-distance migrants that are experiencing steep population declines?

For a number of reasons - the public's distaste for clearcutting, the abandonment of farmland in certain regions, increasing suburbanization in others - the nation's forests are changing (see The Great Green East: Lands Everyone Wants, on page 13). In New England, the mosaic of small farms and forestland is disappearing as farms are abandoned. Through much of the mid-Atlantic, shopping centers and housing developments are nibbling at forest fringes. Across the East forests are aging, while in the Rocky Mountains fire suppression is changing the biological character of entire ecosystems. Such changes have led to a host of questions about avian biodiversity and our remaining forests:

* How do birds fare in smaller woodlands?

* How do bird communities differ in young woods vs. mature forests?

* And how can timber harvest be made most compatible with a healthy, diverse avifauna?

It is, says Richard Yahner, professor of wildlife conservation at Pennsylvania State University, "an exciting time. We are rethinking our means of managing a forest for biodiversity." And in that there is both opportunity and dilemma.

Early Warnings

Among the birds posting significant population declines are many species in the group known as neotropical migrants. These long-distance fliers breed in North America and fly south to Mexico, Latin America, and South America for the winter. About half of the some 650 birds species found in the U.S are in this category; about 30 of those face precipitous declines nationwide or in significant portions of their ranges. Many of those birds are forest-interior species, creatures that prefer to nest in large, heavily wooded sites. Among them are the wood thrush (down an average of 1.9 percent per year from 1966 to 1993, according to the Breeding Bird Survey), cerulean warbler (down 2.6 percent per year), and eastern wood-pewee (down 1.6 percent per year).

Others are early successional migrants, birds that prefer nest sites in younger vegetation, such as overgrown fields, patches of clearcut forests, and places where natural disturbances have cleared the woods of its forested canopy. Among these species are the painted bunting (down 3.3 percent per year), field sparrow (down 3.3 percent), and golden-winged warbler (down 2.3 percent). …

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