Thinking Big for Birds

By: Vanessa Beeson

Back to News

Posted: 5/30/2023

Thinking Big for Birds Photo By: David Ammon

OVER 62% OF MISSISSIPPI'S LAND BASE is forested giving the Magnolia State a $13.8 billion dollar forestry and forest products enterprise. While green covers the map, the residents that enjoy the forested landscape are why Forest and Wildlife Research Center scientists are part of the Tombigbee Forest Bird Partnership (TFBP), an effort aimed at celebrating and enhancing avian conservation in the Southeast's working forests. Emily Jo "EJ" Williams, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy's Southeast and Atlantic Coast region, leads the effort and said the partnership's goals include communicating the value of working forests, sustaining and increasing the conservation value to birds across the landscape, and developing and conducting demonstration and research activities.

"We seek to demonstrate and celebrate the values of sustainable forest management in private working forests for bird conservation and also identify ways to maintain and enhance those values for birds, especially for species in decline," Williams said. The TFBP covers nearly one million acres in a 75-mile radius around Starkville, including 19 Northeast Mississippi counties and six Northwest Alabama counties. The partnership, which includes International Paper, Weyerhaeuser, The Westervelt Company, C.A. Barge Timberlands, McShan Lumber, Wildlife Mississippi, Alabama Forestry Association, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, grew out of another collaboration between the American Bird Conservancy and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a group that promotes sustainable forestry and manages a set of certification standards.

Williams said the TFBP helps landowners learn how their management decisions influence habitat conditions for birds and other wildlife. "We'll spend a day out with a landowner, and they gain insight into the birds using their land. We can show them how the birds are benefiting from existing sustainable forestry best practices and how we can make enhancements. We celebrate what's good and look for ways to do even more," she said. Williams also discussed the involvement of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in the partnership. "The tribe has about 28,000 acres of forested land. They're in the process of rebuilding their dictionary so we're learning about the cultural importance and names of birds in their language. Additionally, the Choctaw art of basketweaving uses rivercane and the tribe has lost much of this raw material so we're hoping to help them restore rivercane habitat and, in the process, perhaps help birds who were once dependent on it. Improving the cultural and biodiversity value of the landscape is vital," she said.

DR. KRISTINE EVANS, associate professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture and an FWRC scientist, has long studied forested habitats for landbirds. Most recently, as technical advisory team chair for the East Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture, she helped create the East Gulf Coastal Plain Landbird Conservation Plan. Recommendations in the plan detailing longterm population and habitat objectives for 29 prioritized landbird species across six Southeastern states will be utilized by the TFBP partnership.

Evans conducts research and monitoring in collaboration with TFBP partners as well and recently evaluated how forest management activities influence species diversity and abundance at the landscape scale. "We assessed if young plantation areas could serve as a proxy for grassland and shrubland habitat and enhance the bird communities. We also studied mature forests to see how the proximity to varied patches of habitat affected bird communities and found that nearness to different habitats bolstered bird populations," she said. In another project, Evans is assessing plant-pollinator-bird relationships on Weyerhaeuser-managed forests in Mississippi and Westervelt-managed forests in Alabama. The team is in the first year of evaluating diversity of plants, pollinators, and birds to determine important connections between all three.

"Our understanding of the relationships among plants, pollinators, and birds in forest systems is limited. We recognize how a certain interdependence among these organisms often has disproportionate effects on the function of biological systems so a better understanding of functional diversity within this ecosystem may be of great importance in managed forest systems," she said. Evans pointed out that most timber producers are already focused on sustainability and this partnership aims to increase their ability to further enhance forest and wildlife health. "Across the southern U.S., 86% of forests are privately owned, many managed for timber production. Working forests are critical to sustainability of biodiversity and economic security in rural southern landscapes, and support many imperiled species," Evans explained. "At one TFBP site, we detected 76 bird species. That's comparable to most protected non-production forests. We seek to raise awareness of the value of these managed forest systems for biodiversity while making small management enhancements that will increase sustainability of forest resources for wildlife without impacting economic returns."

Wildlife and Fisheries