Patch Cuts Provide Homes for Young Forest Birds in MA

Many people are turned off by the messy look of clearcuts – even though such timber harvests efficiently create expanses of important young forest habitat for wildlife. Recent research by two Massachusetts scientists suggests that smaller patch cuts can also help certain bird species.

black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warblers will readily occupy small patches of regrowing young forest, including sites 1/2 acre and smaller, according to a Massachusetts study./J.D. Mayes

The researchers found that black-and-white warblers, common yellowthroats, chestnut-sided warblers, eastern towhees, and gray catbirds readily occupied patches of regrowing forest 1/2 acre and smaller. Indigo buntings needed patches an acre and a half in area, and prairie warblers showed up in patches 2 3/4 acre and larger.

In a technical article recently published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, H. Patrick Roberts of the University of Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Conservation and David I. King of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station assert that “Group selection harvests, where groups of adjacent trees are removed from a mature forest matrix, may be more acceptable to the public and could provide habitat for shrubland birds.”

The researchers add that “despite their inability to support the entire suite of shrubland species, small forest openings can provide habitat for several species of conservation concern if proper attention is given to promoting suitable microhabitat, patch, and landscape characteristics.”

Roberts and King sampled birds in forest openings ranging from 0.02 to 1.29 hectares (roughly ½ acre to 3.2 acres). They conducted their field research in 2014 and 2015 in Franklin and Worcester counties, western Massachusetts, near Quabbin Reservoir.

Their overall study area spanned approximately 57,000 hectares (140,000 acres) of which more than 90 percent was forested. Within that area, they focused on 10 timber-harvest sites that each comprised between 1 and 40 small openings.

The researchers and their technicians surveyed birds three times a year on the study sites, going out at dawn and listening for bird calls as well as looking for bird sightings. They recorded 1,633 detections of 52 bird species in 2014, and 2,046 detections of 48 species in 2015. Detected species included 16 of 41 species identified as core shrubland birds in New England.

Roberts and King believe their study results have important implications for managing shrubland birds, particularly in regions where forest parcel sizes are too small to create large openings.

Log forwarder

Small patch cuts in heavily forested areas can provide pockets of young forest habitat that will be used by wildlife./SPNHF

They write, “In situations where the goal is to accommodate all species [included] in this study, land managers should consider creating openings >1.1 ha [2.74 acres] in size. If this is not feasible operationally, as is the case for many private forest owners in southern New England, openings 0.23 ha [0.5 acres] in size can still provide habitat for several species of high conservation concern.”

Roberts and King recommend that land managers and foresters consider the importance of “landscape context” when planning timber harvests that can benefit shrubland birds, and that they “prioritize creating openings near existing large shrubland patches.”

Such planning makes it more likely that area-sensitive species, such as prairie warblers, will be able to use the sites and will thus “maximize conservation value of management efforts while also minimizing monetary expenses associated with habitat creation.”

WMI and numerous conservation partners work to inform the public and landowners of the crucial importance of young forest to a range of wildlife, including American woodcock, New England cottontails, and many songbirds, game animals, and several reptiles. More than 60 kinds of wildlife in the East and Upper Midwest need young forest and are currently classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need by various states in those regions.

Read the research paper by Roberts and King.