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Timber harvests may help declining songbirds, WVU researcher says

Photo of young woman's hand holding Cerulean Warbler

In the forests of Greenbrier, Fayette and Nicholas counties, three species of concern have West Virginia University researchers’ attention. The golden-winged warbler, the cerulean warbler and the wood thrush—all native to West Virginia—are experiencing significant population declines. 


Chris Lituma, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is leading a study to learn about the birds’ habitat, which overlaps with 250,000 acres of forestland belonging to Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the largest sustainable forestry companies in North America.


Each of the species has specific habitat needs. The golden-winged warbler lives in early successional forests, which provide areas of regrowth absent of tall trees and canopy. The species is under review for a federal endangered species listing, as the Appalachian population has declined by around 90% since the 1960s, mainly due to habitat loss on breeding and wintering grounds.


In the project’s early stages, Lituma hypothesized that Weyerhaeuser’s large acreage could support the golden-winged warbler and other species that need young forests. Though timber harvests are not the same as a natural disturbance, they can provide the heavily disturbed patches in the eastern deciduous forest that the species requires. The same may be true for cerulean warblers, who thrive in canopy gaps. Appropriate harvesting can create these kinds of spaces as well.


“We're trying to think about how these birds are responding to that,” he said. “We also want to know if there are ways in which Weyerhaeuser might be able to improve or modify their harvest that could potentially benefit something like a golden-winged warbler.”


To gather field data, the researchers, including graduate students Robert Ryan and Alex Clark, conducted bird surveys. The first year of the three-year project consisted of finding the birds on the landscape to gather a baseline of data. Autonomous recording units captured morning birdsong, when the warblers are most active. 


The project relies heavily on Weyerhaeuser’s support. The company is certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and undergoes yearly audits to ensure its timber and forestry practices adhere to SFI’s Forest Management Standard. Weyerhaeuser has been instrumental in allowing the WVU researchers access to the property.


The project also sheds a light on long-held attitudes about forestry and the forestry sector. Lituma said the public tends to incorrectly believe that harvesting forests is invariably a bad thing. Indeed, after the near-complete harvesting of the eastern deciduous forest in the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists, too, believed it had been detrimental. Sustainably managed harvesting that considers habitat diversity can yield benefits for wildlife.


“I think there was a knee-jerk reaction from a lot of ecologists and biologists who said, ‘We need to let things grow. We need to leave the forest alone. But now, what we have are 80- to 120-plus year-old forest stands that are all even-aged.” 


He likened the attitude to the era of Smokey the Bear, when all forest fires were considered problematic. Today, scientists know that fire is an integral part of many ecosystems that should be returned to the landscape and utilized as a tool, as can harvesting timber.


“As scientists, we know that's how things progress,” he said. “We did think it was bad then, and then we learned there are bad and good to each of these things. I think if you spoke to a lot of biologists in the eastern US, they would agree that there isn't enough disturbance in our forests anymore.”


The collected data will help determine future land management practices. Weyerhaeuser is a unique property with control over a large area of land, and once researchers know where the birds are on the landscape, they can make forest management recommendations that will best benefit the birds and their habitat. 


“There’s an opportunity to influence where the golden-winged warblers go on the landscape,” Lituma said. “That, in my mind, is where the rubber meets the road—trying to utilize the data, to then focus management and build that sort of critical mass of habitat.”


Smaller private landowners can also take part in supporting bird habitat by enrolling with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service, which will share the cost of management for golden-winged or cerulean warblers on their property. 


“Part of the goal is to think about prioritizing other private landowners for these programs,” Lituma said. “If Weyerhaeuser could act as an anchor for these species, and you could build capacity around the property, then you might see a good response.” 


Ultimately, Lituma hopes the research will provide a blueprint for how landowners can maintain their investments while also supporting bird populations.


“We want to see these species populations reverse course and begin to jump up. And that, I think, is where a lot of us are right now in the bird world, thinking on these larger scales and trying to build that capacity.”


In addition to Weyerhaeuser, WVU has partnered on the study with American Bird Conservancy, Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, National Council of Air and Stream Improvement Inc, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Unit, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. 


The work is being funded by The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation via the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources though the U.S. Geological Survey, and through the Wildlife Conservation Initiative, a collaboration among The National Alliance of Forest Owners, National Council of Air and Stream Improvement Inc, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.



MEDIA CONTACT: Laura Roberts 
Research Writer 
WVU Research Communications

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