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More Boots on the Ground to Help Declining Songbird in Minnesota

Posted by Julie MacSwain, Minnesota Public Affairs Specialist on July 05, 2016 at 07:54 AM
The golden-winged warbler breeds in the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains. Photo: DJ McNeil

The golden-winged warbler breeds in the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains. Photo: DJ McNeil

Minnesota is a stronghold for the golden-winged warbler, a bird suffering a significant population decline. A new project brings together a nonprofit, a federal agency and private landowners to slow or even reverse this decline.

Golden-winged warblers depend on young forests for nesting. But across the country, including in Minnesota, forests have changed, and older forests have come to dominate huge areas. Both game and non-game species that rely on young forests are in decline. 

Partners Teaming Up to Help Golden-winged Warbler
The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners are working with private landowners who want to adopt sustainable forestry practices on their land, which helps landowners manage for more diversity of forest age classes. 

Golden-winged warblers depend on early successional habitats for breeding. Photo: Justin Fritscher, NRCS.

“Golden-winged warblers are one example of wildlife that needs young forest habitat for at least part of their life cycle,” said Duane Fogard, an ABC forester leading this partnership project. “Today, roughly 50 percent of the bird population breeds in Minnesota.” 

The ABC pitched a project to the NRCS. It was funded in 2015 through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which encourages partners to bring project ideas to the table and enables the NRCS to help them meet local conservation needs. Through this five-year project, the ABC provides outreach and technical assistance to build interest and participation in programs that help landowners manage young forests, also called early successional habitat.

Off to a Strong Start
Fogard and his colleague, Kevin Sheppard, spend most of their time meeting one-on-one with landowners about conserving the warbler. “Sometimes it’s hard to get folks excited,” Fogard said. “But this golden-winged warbler conservation effort has people excited. Folks who have not been involved with NRCS are now interested.” 

Fogard said both the ABC and NRCS believe that the decline in the nesting population of golden-winged warblers in Minnesota can be arrested or even reversed. So far, 15 landowners have completed warbler conservation projects. The ABC’s foresters in Minnesota are creating plans with about 70 landowners for projects to be funded in 2017. These projects build on about 50 others by NRCS and ABC since 2013. 

Through sustainable forestry practices, ABC and NRCS are working with landowners to create early successional habitat while leaving behind occasional clusters of mature trees.

About the Golden-winged Warbler
“This bird is a neo-tropical migrant,” Fogard said. “This means that they live down in South and Central America in the winter time and then migrate to North America where they breed in the summer.” 

The golden-winged warbler is one of the ABC’s focal species, and a target species in NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership. While NRCS focuses projects like this one in Minnesota to expand the footprint of habitat restoration across a larger segment of the bird’s breeding range.

The bird’s North American breeding range includes the Great Lakes States and the Appalachian states where its losses of habitat have been most significant. 

Broader Benefits for Wildlife
Habitat restored for the golden-winged warbler benefits many other species, including the cerulean warbler, indigo bunting, prairie warbler and other songbirds, as well as game species like American woodcock, wild turkey, deer and grouse. 

The ABC leads another RCPP project in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania that helps landowners manage forests for the cerulean warbler, another imperiled neo-tropical songbird. This bird likes mature forests with occasional breaks in the canopy. 

“The bottom line: forest birds need a diversity of forest ages across the landscape,” Fogard said. “Our goal is to give landowners the knowledge and tools they need to improve management of their forests, both meeting their goals for their land while helping a host of wildlife species.”

More Information
Minnesota landowners interested in this project are encouraged to contact their local USDA service center. For more stories on how wildlife are thriving on private lands, check out NRCS’ new magazine, Working Lands for Wildlife: A Partnership for Conservation Landscapes, Communities & Wildlife.

Related Links

Tags: West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, forests, Working Lands for Wildlife, golden-winged warbler, Minnesota, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Great Lakes region, Appalachian region

categories Landscape Initiatives , Conservation Programs, Discover Conservation, Environment, Plants & Animals

5 response(s) to "More Boots on the Ground to Help Declining Songbird in Minnesota"

Cal Smith says:

This article is unfortunately misleading and not true to the current situation in Minnesota. First, there is already plenty of successional habitat within the Golden-winged Warbler's range in the central and northern half of the state; the removal of old growth forests in favor of regenerating aspen (per the state's forest industry) have all but assured an abundance of this habitat. Second, the removal of old growth forests in favor of successional habitat is detrimental to those species that utilize only old growth habitat, which is certainly declining at a much more rapid rate than successional forests. Birds like Boreal Owl (now nearly extirpated as a breeding species), Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers, and Spruce Grouse are a few birds that strictly require large tracts of old growth forest habitat, which is destroyed when successional habitat is created. As this article correctly points out, Golden-winged Warblers require old growth forest habitat for at least part of their life cycle, but again this habitat is rapidly declining as forests are cut (and therefore turned into successional habitat) in Minnesota. Third, the benefits to other wildlife are misleading. Cerulean Warblers in Minnesota require old growth deciduous forests (often near water or along river courses), a habitat that is incompatible with management for successional forests (in addition, the ranges of Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers overlap very little in Minnesota). Indigo Buntings will certainly benefit from additional successional habitat, but this species is already abundant in Minnesota. Prairie Warblers are rarely found in Minnesota; rather, they are seen less than annually and have never bred in the state. Finally, this article fails to address the threat of encroachment by Blue-winged Warblers, the close relatives of Golden-winged Warblers that frequently hybridize with them. Because the two species share some of the same habitat requirements, including successional habitat, managing for successional habitat will likely encourage a greater rate of decline for Golden-winged populations in Minnesota as has been seen in other states. For more information, see the well researched article in The Loon, journal of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union: "Dynamic Distribution of Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera), Golden-winged Warbler (V. chrysoptera), and Their Hybrids in Minnesota" by Svingen and Hertzel, 2015.

NRCS says:

When it comes to sustainable forests, diversity is key. Through this project, we’re providing landowners with the tools they need to manage for early successional habitat amid forested landscapes. While golden-winged warblers need early successional habitat for breeding, they need forests of other ages for other parts of their life cycle, such as more mature forests for fledglings to feed. NRCS, the American Bird Conservancy and others are working with landowners to adopt science-based sustainable forestry practices that promote diversity and enhance habitat for many different wildlife species. Sustainable forestry increases the structural diversity within a stand and across the landscape with a goal to create a continuum of young and old forests.

Data show early successional forests (0-15 years) is on the decline, and more mature forests are on the rise in Minnesota. According to the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources, Minnesota’s forests have moved from being largely young (0 to 40 years old) in 1977 to predominantly older forest (ages 41 years plus) in 2011. Forests that are 20 years old and younger have declined from 32 percent to 18 percent from 1977 to 2011.

It’s important to point out that a landowner can manage for many types of forests on one site. For example, one part of a property may make perfect golden-winged warbler habitat while another part for cerulean warbler. NRCS is working with landowners in the Great Lakes and Appalachia Mountains regions to manage forests for both species.

Additionally, these forestry practices is unlikely to impact the mentioned birds, such as the boreal Owl, black-backed woodpecker, American three-toed woodpeckers, and spruce grouse as they are associated with coniferous forests. This project focuses only on deciduous forests.

Andy Ward says:

In Wisconsin forced logging to retain tree farm status has reduced the number of old trees. If older trees are valuable to rare species then maybe tree farmers shouldn't be forced to harvest during times of low prices. Also, due to declining paper use, maybe builder's lumber should be favored for farms willing to let the trees mature.

Hank S says:

You nailed it Cal. But you missed the biggest lie in the article. The title and the text both state that golden-winged warblers are declining in Minnesota. The truth is they have been stable in Minnesota in the Breeding Bird Survey counts and the Duluth NRRI counts for decades. So you've got millions of dollars being spent by out-of-state folks and a bird being lied about all to convince folks to cut down unnecessary amounts of forest. You're right to be angry Cal. There is no good justification for this mess.

Cindy P says:

NRCS is using funding targeted for conservation to degrade old growth forests? The fact that young forest are declining should not be viewed as a bad thing. That is a good thing. So NRCS lies and states that old forests are bad and we need to pay landowners to degrade the forest by cutting it down. Sad, Sad, Sad. If NRCS wants more young forests, then why not pay to plant historic forested sites not used for pasture or cropland? That would be using tax dollars in an ecologically sound way, and NRCS would not have to lie.

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