Managing Forests for Birds

Chestnut-sided Warbler © Phil Doyle
Chestnut-sided Warbler © Phil Doyle

The forests of New England are vital for the survival and reproduction of many birds, such as the Chestnut-sided Warbler and Wood Thrush. Yet numerous forest birds have undergone a drastic decline in numbers, raising concerns among conservationists.

These declines can be attributed in part to the current habitat conditions found in our forests. Creating and maintaining hospitable habitat will be key to sustaining our forest birds, and doing so requires engagement and action.

The Conservation Issue

Prior to European colonization, Massachusetts was a forested landscape, where natural processes created differences in the age, size and species of trees, and their composition within forests. However, by the middle of the 1800’s, about 80% of the Massachusetts landscape had been cleared for agriculture.

The eventual decline of agriculture in the state allowed our forests to resurge, and Massachusetts is now about 60% forested. Yet these forests are severely lacking the diversity in age and structure that is crucial for supporting healthy and diverse bird populations since each bird species has its own particular habitat preferences. The forests in Massachusetts are largely considered to be middle-aged, and there is not much young or old forest, the latter of which offers particularly high quality breeding habitat for birds.

Some birds breed exclusively in young forests (<20 years old) and a lack of habitat has limited their numbers in the state. Similarly, species that favor the complex structure of trees, shrubs, dead logs, and canopy gaps found in old forests have been limited.

Natural disturbances, such as intense storms and flooding from beaver dams, once cleared large areas of trees and created young forest habitat. Now, our middle-aged forests are less susceptible to storm damage, and we suppress beaver activity and other disturbances. Smaller disturbances and natural tree mortality create the ideal structural conditions found in old forests, but few old forests exist. As it stands, a lack of natural disturbances and a prevalence of homogeneous middle-aged forests present deficiencies in our bird habitat.

Taking Action with Foresters for the Birds

Related Resources 

This article about the program was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Mass Audubon's Explore magazine:

Read Managing Forests for Trees & Birds Alike >

Check out the presentation from our Foresters for the Birds workshop in Hanson:

Working Forests for Birds, Climate Change, and Your Community >

Mass Audubon has partnered with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Mass Woodlands Institute to bring the Foresters for the Birds program to Massachusetts. Originating from an Audubon Vermont initiative, the program provides technical assistance for landowners to manage their forests for bird habitat. Carefully planned and sustainable forestry practices can create young forest habitat, and enhance the structure within our maturing forests.

Our Foresters for the Birds program trains foresters to assess the existing bird habitat in a forest, make recommendations for improvement, and plan out bird-friendly management strategies. Empowering landowners to manage for birds is important because about 75% or our forests are privately owned. Therefore, enabling management on these lands can greatly impact the conservation of our forest birds.

Learn more about this program >