Birds: Non-Game

Chickadee.When managing forest land for non-game birds, one should consider the needs of all the birds that will occupy that land. This becomes somewhat difficult however, when we realize that there are at least three different populations of birds over the course of a year. There are year-round residents, winter visitors, and summer visitors. Their needs are perhaps better understood when their foods are considered. Year-round residents are the most versatile, and can sustain themselves on a combination of seeds, fruits, and insects. However, there are few fruits and insects in winter so most of our winter visitors depend on seed bearing plants. Likewise, our summer visitors tend to be those species that have evolved to feed primarily on insects which thrive in a diversity of plant types

By providing mixed habitats that support all food types over the course of a year, it is possible to support all bird species that might occur in that area. If all types of management could not be undertaken, the next step should then be to assess which group of birds needs our management help the most.

Here are some general guidelines about different bird groups and what can be done to benefit them in basic forest management.

Year-Round Residents

Oriole.These are the birds that we are most familiar with; cardinals, bluejays, chickadees, carolina wrens, and bluebirds just to name a few. They are the residents of small farm woodlots as well as city parks. Although you can find some of them deep in the forest, they don't require that habitat. As long as there is food and available nesting sites, these birds are at home. About half of our resident songbirds are cavity nesters, so the single biggest asset to them is a good mixed forest with different sizes of dead or dying trees, or trees with natural cavities like beeches and gums. Although some of our residents are at home in pine forests, most prefer at least a mixture of hardwoods, and tend to benefit more as the percentage of hardwood increases. This is largely due to the diversity of seeds and fruits generated by hardwoods, as well as the potential for cavities.

Mixed woodlots, a good diversity of tree and shrub species, and a regular water source such as a creek or stream will greatly benefit resident forest dwellers. These birds also depend heavily on cover from hawks, particularly in the winter, so a sprinkling of holly, sweetbay, or similar plants make for a valuable midstory component in woodlots or around yards.

Winter Visitors

Among those forest dwelling species that spend their winters in Virginia are kinglets, creepers, juncos and several species of sparrows. Collectively they occupy almost all forest and field habitats. The kinglets and creepers surprisingly still manage to find insects in the winter, utilizing conifer forests, hardwoods, and brushy edge habitats. The juncos and sparrows, however, are predominantly seed dependent and benefit from weedy fields, brushy hedgerows, and forest/field edges. A plan of mixed forests and idle fields with hedgerows accommodates the needs of most winter visitors.

Summer Visitors

Summer brings about a whole host of birds not seen any other time of year. There are at least 65 species of forest dwelling birds alone, that occur in Virginia just during the warmer months. Most of these species spend their winters in Central and South America and so are called neotropical migrants. Fortunately, almost all of them are insect eaters, so they don't destroy crops, and they help keep a lot of insect pests in check. Unfortunately, some of them have rather demanding habitat needs and many of them are suffering significant population declines in Virginia. Looking at the majority of these species, and with particular emphasis on the ones in the most trouble, the preferred habitat types are large blocks of mature hardwoods.

Of course, if you don't have large blocks of hardwood forest, they are difficult to create. There are other measures that can be undertaken to improve songbird habitat. When harvesting timber out of any size stand, it is best to try to preserve as much of a core area as possible. In other words, if one is interested in managing for summer songbirds, one would consolidate cuts into one large area of clearcut, rather than cutting a number of smaller blocks out of the middle. You want to minimize edge when managing for interior species. One preferred timber management technique might be a selective cut, where a large proportion of the overstory is left intact. The landowner should guard against highgrading when a selective cut occurs. This would generate rapid growth of the understory which is also favorable because it initially produces a number of different types of plants, in regards to height, amount of foliage, etc. As insect eaters, these songbirds depend on a variety of plants which will support a number of different kinds of insects. For each type of forest habitat there is at least one specialized bird species that can exploit its resources.

There are at least two reasons for promoting the management of large blocks of timber for songbirds. First, some of these species are known to be area sensitive. That is, they are dependent on a forest size that is actually much greater than they actually need to find a nest site or to locate food. This is one of the behaviors that makes them so specialized and consequently so hard to manage for.

There is another problem that relates to small forest size. Birds that are forced to nest close to an edge are subject to greater problems from brown-headed cowbirds. Cowbirds are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in the nest of smaller songbirds. When the cowbird eggs hatch, the young are so big that they get all the food that the host parents bring back. The result is that the smaller songbird young do not survive and the cowbirds increase in number affecting more and more songbirds each year. Since cowbirds are not forest dwelling species, they tend to look for their victims along forest edges. So the bigger the block of forest is, the more interior space there is for songbirds to get out of the reach of cowbirds.

Many of the migrant songbirds prefer transitional habitats, such as regenerating clearcuts. The only problem with clearcuts is that they are only useful for about 6-8 years until the regenerating pine stand closes in and shuts out the hardwood and herbaceous understory. Once the pines take over there are very few songbirds that utilize monoculture pine stands as their primary habitat. It's not until the stand reaches maturity and a hardwood midstory starts to creep back in that the stand regains its value to songbirds. Early and regulard thinnings will improve pine stands for wildlife and improve your tree growth. Ideal areas for many summer songbirds would be habitats that could be maintained in a shrubby, mixed vegetation state as in powerline corridors, or young clearcuts.

Unfortunately, very few landowners own large tracts of timber that could be managed to the benefit of nesting songbirds. However, there is a great deal the small landowner can do for migrating songbirds. Even with all the migrant birds that nest in Virginia in the summer, there are many more migrating songbirds that just pass through Virginia on their way to nesting areas far to the north of us. We see them only as they travel through in spring and fall. What these birds need is a safe place to refuel during their journey.

In the Coastal Plain, birds tend to funnel toward the coast as they make their start north or south for migration. In order to accomplish this, they typically use streams, creeks, and rivers to lead them to the coast. As a result, waterways, swamps, and riparian corridors tend to be vitally important to migrating birds. For those landowners who cannot manage large areas for nesting songbirds, there is a lot that can be done by simply protecting forested tracts along waterways. Increasing the width of forested buffers along streams, even to the point of doubling recommended BMP's when harvesting timber is a highly recommended management practice for birds as well as other wildlife.

Tree-lined fencerows and forested roadsides also serve as valuable travel corridors for migrating songbirds, especially if the corridor links two larger tracts of forest. These corridors provide a critical area for safe passage of birds and other wildlife migrating to nesting sites or just moving from one wooded patch to another. Mourning doves are primarily seed eaters but will also feed on some insects. Corn, sunflower, millet, wheat, ragweed, pokeweed, panic grass, and white pine are just some of the seeds that comprise their diets.