Bird community response to timber harvesting in the central Appalachian Mountains

Results were recently published from a large-scale study of bird community responses to forest management practices commonly used in the central Appalachian Mountains. The treatments used in the study reflected forest harvesting practices that have been proposed as tools for enhancing
breeding habitat for Cerulean Warbler, a declining songbird.

The paper was authored by James Sheehan of West Virginia University and co-authors associated with the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Tennessee, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State University, and NCASI.

The authors conclude that “use of forest management practices to achieve medium levels of RBA [residual basal area] (~10–20 m2 ha-1 RBA) in second-growth, actively managed Appalachian oak-dominated forests enhanced Cerulean Warbler habitat and also benefited a wide range of other forest birds, including those that were understory-dependent.” 

The abstract for the paper follows.

“Timber harvesting has been proposed as a management tool to enhance breeding habitat for the Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea), a declining Neotropical–Nearctic migratory songbird that nests in the canopy of mature eastern deciduous forests. To evaluate how this single-species management focus might fit within an ecologically based management approach for multiple forest birds, we performed a manipulative experiment using four treatments (three intensities of timber harvests and an unharvested control) at each of seven study areas within the core Cerulean Warbler breeding range. We collected pre-harvest (one year) and post-harvest (four years) data on the territory density of Cerulean Warblers and six additional focal species, avian community relative abundance, and several key habitat variables. We evaluated the avian and habitat responses across the 3–32 m2 ha−1 residual basal area (RBA) range of the treatments. Cerulean Warbler territory density peaked with medium RBA (∼16 m2 ha−1). In contrast, territory densities of the other focal species were negatively related to RBA (e.g., Hooded Warbler [Setophaga citrina]), were positively related to RBA (e.g., Ovenbird [Seiurus aurocapilla]), or were not sensitive to this measure (Scarlet Tanager [Piranga olivacea]). Some species (e.g., Hooded Warbler) increased with time post-treatment and were likely tied to a developing understory, whereas declines (e.g., Ovenbird) were immediate. Relative abundance responses of additional species were consistent with the territory density responses of the focal species. Across the RBA gradient, greatest separation in the avian community was between early successional forest species (e.g., Yellow-breasted Chat [Icteria virens]) and closed-canopy mature forest species (e.g., Ovenbird), with the Cerulean Warbler and other species located intermediate to these two extremes. Overall, our results suggest that harvests within 10–20 m2 ha−1 RBA yield the largest increases in Cerulean Warblers, benefit additional disturbance-dependent species, and may retain closed-canopy species but at reduced levels. Harvests outside the optimum RBA range for Cerulean Warblers can support bird assemblages specifically associated with early or late (closed-canopy) successional stages.”



Sheehan, J., P. B. Wood, D. A. Buehler, P. D. Keyser, J. L. Larkin, A. D. Rodewald, T. B. Wigley, T. J. Boves, G. A. George, M. H. Bakermans, T. A. Beachy, A. Evans, M. E. McDermott, F. L. Newell, K. A. Perkins, and M. White. 2014. Avian response to timber harvesting applied experimentally to manage Cerulean Warbler breeding populations. Forest Ecology and Management 321:5-18.