When done properly in Massachusetts, forestry can help birds

  • MICHAEL MAURI STATS

Published: 11/5/2019 12:10:14 PM

A recent study in the journal Science documented a huge decline in birds across the U.S. and Canada (the study and related materials are at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website). According to the comprehensive study, our overall bird population has declined by nearly a third since 1970 — an estimated loss of three billion birds!

Who’s to blame? Well, the Cornell website materials lists many causes, including window crashes killing a billion birds every year, ongoing loss of open space to development, the intensification of agriculture, the prevalence of pesticides and plastics, coffee growing practices, the predations of over 100 million house cats, climate change, and more.

Clearly, birds face numerous man-made threats. But contrary to the bleak picture painted in a recent My Turn (“Protect public forests from logging,” Oct. 14), local forestry is not part of the problem. Instead, forestry is part of the solution.

For some readers, the idea of forestry as beneficial to birds may come as a surprise. Yet the unique and positive role that forestry can play in bird conservation is well-established by science. Even birds that breed in mature forests can benefit from forestry. It’s all about habitat.

Forest birds seek out and use different habitats for different purposes. For nesting, some species, such as the chestnut-sided warbler or the Eastern towhee, seek out young forests. Others nest in more mature forests. For example, the wood thrush prefers a tall but layered canopy with thick leaf litter, while the scarlet tanager is drawn to forests with large-crowned hardwood trees.

But once the breeding season is over, many birds that have only just finished nesting in more mature forests — including the wood thrush and the scarlet tanager — are drawn to nearby young forest habitats. Here, in dense thickets of prickly, shrubby or whippy stems teeming with summer insects and fruits, they join the young-forest breeders, and perhaps even ruffed grouse and whip-poor-wills, to make intense use of the plentiful protein and protective cover that young forests provide.

Though the towhee and the wood thrush nest in different habitats, they prepare for winter in the same habitat. In all, over 60 local bird species use young forest this way, including 18 species listed by Mass Wildlife as Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

Yet, today, young forests constitute less than 5% of our forest landscape, down sharply from over 20% in 1970.

And that’s why the Commonwealth’s State Wildlife Action Plan looks to increase the young forest component of our aging forest landscape. Indeed, with their large acreages, our public lands are uniquely positioned to provide some of the highest-quality forest habitat we can offer - whether young or old.

Forestry is often thought of as a way to produce timber, winter fuel and other basic products. Now the stakes are higher, with forest-grown wood increasingly recognized for its potential to help us navigate the climate crisis (see “Let’s fill our cities with taller, wooden buildings,” a recent NY Times article by Harvard Forest Director David Foster and colleagues).

Even where timber is not the focus, as in forests reserved for biodiversity, watershed protection, recreation, or carbon management, cutting timber can help develop complex habitats of healthy trees, including vigorous young trees adapted to future climate scenarios we’ll face.

But in all cases, whether cutting timber is the objective or merely a means to an end, forestry that thoughtfully considers where, when and how to proceed can play a key role in supporting a complex blend of high-quality habitats birds need. Forestry that pays special attention to the retention of uncommon, diversifying, sustaining or legacy-preserving components, such as noteworthy trees, will only enhance these habitats further (more on this another time).

We are fortunate to live in a region of abundant forest. As our forest continues to grow, most of it — public and private— will be in a maturing or mature condition at any given time. And that is good. But it is not good enough for birds. In fact, a habitat policy (such as H. 897) that broadly prohibits logging on public land would shortchange birds out of critical young forest habitat, leaving them with yet one more harm to endure.

Let’s use our knowledge of what forest birds need and practice forestry as the beneficial, future-oriented tool it is meant to be, supporting ourselves and our feathered friends as we go.

Michael Mauri is a forester based in South Deerfield.

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