Finding 'Sweet Spots' for Bird Conservation

Companies that grow, harvest, and process wood into paper and paperboard products own millions of acres across Appalachia. Many employ biologists and foresters whose mission is to understand the science behind keeping the forests healthy, productive, and sustainable.

The forest industry is paramount in creating habitat for birds, says wildlife biologist Jeff Larkin of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “They need to demand that the timber they're procuring is harvested in a way that promotes sustainable forestry and promotes the diverse landscapes we're looking for,” he says.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The Chestnut-sided Warbler (above), along with the Canada Warbler and Rusty Blackbird (below), stand to benefit from Plum Creek's management of forests in Appalachia. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Some people still believe that leaving the forest alone is best for birds, Larkin says. But eastern forests have historically been so poorly managed from a bird conservation perspective, he says, that the only way to fix things now is to manage them back to a more natural condition.

A sustainable approach to management doesn't just benefit wildlife, Larkin adds. It also means companies' forests will remain healthy and productive for years to come.

Looking for 'Sweet Spots' for Bird Conservation

One such company is Plum Creek, a program participant in the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. SFI's land-owning program participants sustainably manage more than 250 million acres of forest in North America, from the boreal forests of Canada to the southeastern United States, benefiting many species of forest birds. Plum Creek owns more than six million acres across 19 states; 257,000 acres are in Appalachia.

Biodiversity is a key emphasis of the company's sustainable approach, says Henning Stabins, a wildlife biologist with Plum Creek who also serves on the steering committee of Partners in Flight, a public-private partnership that aims to stop declines of neotropical songbirds.

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler by David Disher

By collaborating with organizations like ABC and SFI, Plum Creek uses science to find “sweet spots” where bird conservation and commercial forest management goals align.

Conserving Biodiversity at All Levels

The company's approach is threefold. At a regional level, Plum Creek considers how its management of working forests fits with the biodiversity goals of surrounding national forests, state lands, and property owned by small private landowners. Then, on Plum Creek lands, the company works to create a shifting mosaic of trees that enhances habitat for wildlife—including birds—and keeps it viable over time.

The last piece is the most specific. Within a particular stand of trees, how can the company harvest—leaving large, mature trees favored by Cerulean Warblers, for instance—in a manner that promotes biodiversity on a smaller scale?

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird by Mike Parr

Stabins gives an example. Mindful of a small songbird that favors young forest, he says, foresters often prescribe that harvests leave small snags and even some small trees for perching posts: “For male Golden-winged Warblers to tell everybody that this is their territory,” he says.

Blending Science with Practice

In certain areas in the Appalachians, the Golden-winged Warbler and Cerulean Warbler's needs align well with Plum Creek's. Biologists collaborate closely with foresters to incorporate science into on-the-ground work to benefit these birds, Stabins says.

It's a win-win for everyone if foresters determine that the way they want to grow trees matches up with what the birds like. Whenever that's the case, Stabins says, “we want to make our foresters aware of that.”

Libby SanderLibby Sander is Senior Writer and Editor at American Bird Conservancy, where she edits the Bird Calls blog and Bird Conservation magazine. As a journalist, she has written news stories and award-winning features for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow her on Twitter: @libsander.