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Conservation Choices for Wildlife - Golden-winged Warbler

This guide outlines seven key conservation practices recommended to forest landowners who want to sustainably manage forests to benefit wildlife and forest health.

New 'Conservation Choices for Wildlife' Booklet

We also offer a booklet that covers these practices. You can download a PDF of it or request a free hard copy.

This webpage outlines seven key conservation practices recommended to forest landowners who want to sustainably manage forests to benefit the golden-winged warbler, a neotropical migratory songbird that breeds in young forests and shrubland habitats of the Appalachian Mountains and upper Great Lakes.

During the past 50 years, this vibrant songbird has experienced significant population declines throughout much of its breeding range. This decline is, in large part, because of the loss of young forest habitat needed for nesting. 

Benefits to Landowners

Sustainable forestry practices help forest landowners improve the health and diversity of their forests, which can yield higher value timber and wildlife habitat. Families, hunting clubs, and other private forest landowners managing for timber production can benefit from sustainably managed forests. People have even found they can “reset the clock” on low-value forests, regenerating a healthier and more valuable stand of trees.

Managing for Young Forests

Depending on the land and a forest landowner’s goals, a variety of techniques can be used to create and enhance breeding habitat for the golden-winged warbler. The most common way to create breeding habitat for the species is to create young forest habitat through timber harvesting. In order to successfully regenerate a forest stand, preparatory work is often needed to encourage the germination, accumulation and growth of desirable tree seedlings. A few large and healthy deciduous trees are retained to serve as song perches and foraging locations for golden-winged warblers and other songbirds.

Forest landowners can also use prescribed burning, brush management, and other practices to set back the succession of shrubs in old fields, which also creates golden-winged warbler nesting habitat.

 And in some places, such as the high-elevation pastures in West Virginia, landowners can also use low-intensity grazing with domestic livestock to slow vegetative succession (generally during May through October) and maintain quality brushy habitat.

Assistance Available

NRCS and conservation partners work with forest landowners to plan and implement these practices that benefit a variety of species, including the golden-winged warbler. This assistance includes the development of a custom forest management plan as well as financial support to help cover part of the costs of implementing the practices. Technical and financial assistance is available through the Farm Bill, including the agency's Working Lands for Wildlife partnership

Conservation Choices

The conservation practices below are the main activities that forest landowners can use to manage for young forest habitat. Additional practices are available to complement the core practices, resulting in a working conservation system.

  1. Brush Management
  2. Herbaceous Weed Control
  3. Forest Stand Improvement
  4. Early Successional Habitat Development and Management
  5. Upland Wildlife Habitat Development and Management
  6. Tree/ Shrub Establishment
  7. Prescribed Burning
Brush management is the removal, reduction or manipulation of woody saplings, trees and shrubs.

Brush Management

The Basics:

 Brush management is the removal, reduction or manipulation of woody saplings, trees and shrubs. In a forest, brush management can be used to manage undesirable woody species in the understory of the stand. Control of seedlings, saplings and shrubs can be done mechanically by a forestry mower or chainsaw or chemically with an herbicide. The herbicide treatment can be broadcasted or targeted. In an old field setting, brush management may include mowing or the use of herbicide to control non-native shrub species.

Benefits:

  • Encourages the growth of desirable plant communities.
  • Enhances wildlife habitat and plant species diversity.
  • Benefits pollinators that preferentially forage on native woody species.

 

Considerations:

  • Are there undesirable seedlings, saplings or shrubs in the understory of your forest stand?
  • Are there undesirable seedlings, saplings or shrubs in an old reverting farm field?
  • Do you have the ability (time, equipment, labor) to control the woody vegetation or will you need to hire a contractor?

Notes:

Brush management can be accomplished by using one or both of the following methods:

  • Mechanical Control: In an old field setting this would include mowing with a rotary mower or forestry mower, cutting shrubs or undesirable trees or saplings with a chainsaw, or even pulling out non-native shrubs with a tractor and a chain.  In a forest, mechanical control is typically conducted with a forestry mower or a chainsaw.
  • Chemical Control Herbicides: This includes broadcast, foliar, cut-stem, hack and squirt, or basal bark treatments. This is often the most cost-effective way to manage undesirable and non-native woody species and in some cases, it is the only method that is recommended to successfully kill certain species. Consult your local extension office or a certified herbicide applicator to ensure the most effective and economic herbicide and concentration of herbicide are being used.

Maintenance:

  • Mechanical control alone often does not kill woody vegetation. Monitor cut stems of trees and shrubs for re-sprouting.
  • Even the best herbicide applications aren’t 100 percent effective all the time. Treated areas should be monitored and re-treated. 

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Herbaceous weed control is the removal or control of herbaceous or non-woody plants.

Herbaceous Weed Control

The Basics:

Herbaceous weed control is the removal or control of herbaceous or non-woody plants. Some herbaceous plants are undesirable, such as invasives and aggressively growing natives. These plants often pose major economic and forest health concerns.

Benefits:

  • Restores or releases native plant communities or creates desired plant communities and wildlife habitat consistent with the ecological site.
  • Improves growing conditions for native and desirable seedlings, saplings, shrubs, forbs and grasses.
  • Improves herbaceous plant communities to benefit pollinators that preferentially forage on native herbaceous species.

 

Considerations:

  • Is there undesirable herbaceous vegetation in the understory of your forest stand?
  • Is there undesirable herbaceous vegetation in an old farm field?
  • Do you have the ability (time, equipment and labor) to control the herbaceous vegetation or will you need to hire a contractor?

Notes:

In most cases, undesirable herbaceous vegetation must be treated with herbicide to achieve good control and is often the most cost effective method, especially if woody plant species must also be treated at the same time in the same area. In some cases, herbicide is the only method that is recommended to successfully kill certain species. Consult your local extension office or a certified herbicide applicator to ensure the most effective and economic herbicide and concentration of herbicide are being used.

Manage invasive species in a manner that will prevent the spread of the species to a new area. If needed, additional treatments and practices will be applied to protect soils and prevent erosion.

Maintenance:

  • Following initial application, some regrowth, resprouting, or reoccurrence of herbaceous weeds may be expected.
  • Vegetation treated with herbicide should be monitored and re-treated if any new growth is observed.
  • Some species, like Japanese stilt­grass, may require follow-up spot treatments.

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Brush management is the removal, reduction or manipulation of woody saplings, trees and shrubs.

Forest Stand Improvement

The Basics:

Forest stand improvement is manipulating the species composition, structure, and stocking of trees in a forest stand. Like many forestry practices, they're best implemented at a certain point in a forest's rotation. A rotation is the period of time between the establishment of a forest stand and when it's ready for harvest.

Benefits:

  • Improves forest health and tree productivity.
  • Reduces susceptibility to pests.
  • Improves wildlife habitat.
  • Removes or reduces undesirable plants.

 

Considerations:

  • What is the goal in a particular forest stand?
  • Is the goal to improve the quality of the stand (which typically happens during the first third of the stand's rotation)?
  • Or is the goal to regenerate the forest stand in the near future?

Notes:

Some forest stand improvement activities are implemented early on or in the middle of a forest stand’s rotation to influence the quality of the stand. These actions include:

Crop tree release – :

  • A qualified forester chooses 20-100 “crop trees” per acre. The crown of each crop tree is released from competition on three or preferably four sides. Trees competing with crop trees are cut or killed.
  • This method is very effective at improving the quality of the forest stand because the cutting is targeted and the best trees in the stand are given more room to grow.
  • A crop tree release increases a tree’s probability of survival for many decades.
  • Typically conducted during the first third of the rotation, when the stand is 10- to 60-years-old.
  • The best trees in the stand are selected as crop trees.
  • Released crop trees increase in diameter growth and crown size, resulting in increased mast production, which benefits wildlife that depend on hard mast like as acorns.
  • Canopy gaps are created where seedlings can germinate and grow, providing a complex understory that’s beneficial to many songbirds and other wildlife.

Thinning —

  • Designed to increase the quality of the stand, often by removing poor-quality trees or through a general harvest prescription targeting trees of a certain species or diameter range.
  • Various methods are used.
  • Consult a qualified forester.
  • Harvest may not specify the best trees; a cutting prescription is applied to the entire stand to improve stand quality.

Some forest stand improvement activities are conducted later in the stand’s rotation and have the goal of regenerating the forest stand in the near future. Examples of these activities include: 

Low shade removal —

  • Typically conducted in oak forests where no desirable seedlings (regeneration) are present in the understory.
  • Often involves treating competing small seedlings, saplings and shrubs in the understory that are creating dense shade low to the forest floor.
  • Treatment can be mechanical (hand felling with a chainsaw), chemical (foliar, broadcast, hack and squirt, or basal bark herbicide applications), or both.
  • Usually non-commercial.

Preparatory harvest –

  • Reduction of stand density to about 80 to 85 percent by cutting trees from intermediate and co-dominant crown classes.
  • Desirable regeneration is present but small.
  • Few if any canopy gaps are created.

Shelterwood harvest –

  • Used to provide more light to existing seedlings in the case of oak forests. May be used as first cut in other forest types where vigorous seed origin regeneration is expected.
  • Reduction of stand density to about 60 percent by cutting trees from all crown classes.
  • Goal is to leave best mature trees for potential future harvests once seedlings have matured.

Maintenance:

  • Mechanical control alone often does not kill woody vegetation. Monitor cut stems of trees and shrubs for re-sprouting.
  • Even the best herbicide applications aren’t 100 percent effective all the time. Treated areas should be monitored and re-treated.

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Brush management is the removal, reduction or manipulation of woody saplings, trees and shrubs.

Early Successional Habitat Development and Management

The Basics:

Early successional habitat development and management is the creation or maintenance of young forests, old fields and pastures for golden-winged warblers and other species that depend on that type of habitat. Golden-winged warbler nesting habitat consists of scattered mature trees (residual trees), regenerating seedlings and saplings, native shrubs as well as small, scattered openings with native grasses, forbs and wildflowers that border a mature forest.

Benefits:

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  • Provides habitat for a variety of wildlife species that rely on young forests. Some wildlife live almost exclusively in young forest habitat while others use it for one or more phases of their lives.
  • Is compatible with silviculturally-sound forest management activities. 
  • Can be compatible with commercial timber harvests as long as good forestry practices for harvesting are used. 
  • Can improve the composition of tree species in degraded stands by favoring and encouraging the regeneration of oaks, hickories and other desirable species.
  • Tree species that benefit wildlife are often commercially-viable species as well.

Considerations:

  • A property-wide forest management plan is always recommended. If there isn’t one for the property, NRCS and conservation partners can help landowners develop one. 
  • Old fields and pastures with limited economic opportunity can be successfully managed for wildlife.
  • Consult a qualified forester.

Notes:

These habitats, by nature, are ephemeral. That means they're present on the landscape for a short period of time. In the case of regenerating a forest stand, it’s perfectly acceptable and natural to allow the young forest to mature into older forest.

In some cases, such as an abandoned farm field, a landowner may wish to maintain the area in permanent early successional habitat. In these areas, it will be necessary to be vigilant to prevent invasives from invading and crowding out native woody and herbaceous species.

Maintenance:

  • Roads, skid trails and log landings should be reshaped if necessary to prevent erosion and seeded and mulched where necessary. The seed mix should not contain invasive species nor species that will inhibit tree seedling establishment.

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Upland wildlife habitat management is the monitoring of the understory of a forest stand for seeding germination and development.

Upland Wildlife Habitat Development and Management

The Basics:

Upland wildlife habitat management is the monitoring of the understory of a forest stand for seedling germination and development. 

Benefits:

  • Quantifies abundance and size of seedlings, saplings, shrubs and herbaceous vegetation in the understory of the forest stand.

  • Helps determine if there are undesirable woody and herbaceous species that are competing with desirable plants.

  • Helps determine if there are enough desirable tree seedlings of competitive size to move to the next step in the regeneration process, such as a shelterwood harvest or an overstory removal.

  • Monitoring and controlling undesirable plants improves forest health by providing more sunlight, water and nutrients to increase value and biodiversity in the stand.

 

Considerations:

  • What are the desirable tree seedling species that are likely to be present?

  • What are the undesirable species that are likely to be present? Are these plants non-native?

  • If undesirable species are present, are they competing with desirable species?

  • Is a qualified forester needed to collect or help collect this data?

Notes:

  • This practice helps a landowner assess the understory of their forest stand. Site-specific data is systematically collected to assess the status of desirable and undesirable plant growth and determine if a forest has enough desirable species or too many undesirable species.
     
  • Decisions can then be made about whether additional practices are needed before the next step in the regeneration process. Competing, undesirable species may need to be controlled via Brush Management or Herbaceous Weed Control to encourage the growth and accumulation of desirable plants.
     
  • It is sometimes necessary to consult with or hire a qualified forester if seedlings and other plant species are difficult to identify.
     
  • Undesirable or non-native plants may need to be controlled with herbicide if they are competing with desirable species.

Maintenance:

Site-specific data should be reported to a qualified forester and local NRCS office to determine whether:

  • Treatment or re-treatment of undesirable herbaceous and woody vegetation is necessary.
  • The forest stand is ready for the next step in the regeneration process.

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Tree/ shrub establishment is the planting of woody plants by planting seedlings, container/ potted plants, cuttings or by direct seeding.

Tree/ Shrub Establishment

The Basics:

Tree/ shrub establishment is the planting of woody plants by planting seedlings, container/potted plants, cuttings or by direct seeding.

Benefits:

  • Improves plant species composition in a degraded forest stand.

  • Reintroduces native shrub species.

  • Hard (e.g. oak spp.) and soft (e.g. serviceberry) mast producing tree and shrub species benefit wildlife.

  • Trees can be established for forest products.

  • Provides erosion control.

  • Improves water quality through uptake of soil and water borne chemicals and nutrients.

  • Improves air quality.

  • Provides wildlife habitat.

  • Stores carbon in biomass.

 

Considerations:

  • What are the tree and shrub species that are well-suited for the site?
     
  • What is the goal of the tree/shrub planting?
     
  • Inter-planting to improve species composition of an existing forest stand?
     
  • Establishing a new forest on abandoned farmland or reclaimed surface mine?
     
  • Improving an old field by removing non-native shrubs and replacing them with native shrubs?
     
  • Plantings must be protected from deer, either by tree tubes or 8-foot deer exclusion fencing.
     
  • Is there existing vegetation that must be controlled before trees and shrubs can be established?

Notes:

Follow state and local regulations for locating plants adjacent to roadways. Planting date and care in handling should ensure an acceptable rate of survival. NRCS requires a survival rate of 70 percent. Only use viable, high quality, and adapted planting stock. Prepare planting site to establish and grow selected species. Timing and equipment should be appropriate for the site and soil conditions.

Maintenance:

  • Control competing vegetation until the seedlings and shrubs are established.

  • Check for insect and disease damage regularly.

  • Replant as needed.

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Prescribed burning is applying fire to forestland within a recommended set of conditions.

Prescribed Burning

The Basics:

Prescribed burning is applying fire to forestland within a recommended set of conditions, dates and with appropriate safety precautions to achieve a specific purpose.

Benefits:

  • Controls undesirable vegetation.

  • Prepares sites for planting, seeding or natural regeneration.

  • Controls plant disease.

  • Reduces wildfire hazard by consuming accumulated fuel.

  • Improves wildlife habitat through increased browse and low cover.

  • Enhances seed and fruit production of native plants and shrubs.

  • Restores fire-adapted ecosystems and plant communities.

Considerations:

  • Will prescribed burning help meet your objectives? For example, are your problem plant species well controlled by fire?
  • Is fire a safe, practical option for your site?
  • Are you managing an ecosystem that historically experienced fire?
  • Are qualified professionals available to assist with planning and implementation?

Notes:

  • Burn only to meet a specific management objective, generally once every 3 to 30 years. It may be necessary to burn woody vegetation two or more consecutive years to control undesirable sprouting.
  • Use existing barriers, such as lakes, streams, wetlands, roads as well as constructed firebreaks when planning the burn. Consider any known cultural resources and threatened or endangered plants and animals that may be sensitive to burning or firebreak construction.
  • Smoke could have an impact on the surrounding area during and after the burn; carefully plan how smoke impacts will be managed.
  • Successful prescribed burning depends on many environmental factors, such as current and past weather, recent precipitation, temperature, humidity and wind speed.
  • In many states, an official burn plan and highly skilled personnel are required to carry out a prescribed burn.

Maintenance:

  • Monitor the burned site and adjacent areas until ash, debris and other consumed material is at pre-burn temperatures.

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