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Birds of a Feather, Linked to an Open Pine Forest

Catherine Rideout. Credit: USFWS
Catherine Rideout. Credit: USFWS

At least 86 bird species are found in open pine communities, including what’s left of the majestic longleaf pine forests that once carpeted the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Only six were chosen by a bird conservation partnership to determine the best places to restore longleaf and similar open pine ecosystems.

“To me, it simplifies the complexity of the biological planning when you work with a smaller group of species, rather than all of the species,” said Catherine Rideout, Coordinator of the East Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture. “It would be difficult to make progress on planning if we attempted to incorporate all species and their habitat requirements.”

The Joint Venture calls the six bird species their “umbrella species” for the longleaf habitat, and the concept is related to the surrogate species approach recently adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Joint Venture, a public-private partnership focused on bird conservation across the East Gulf Coastal Plain, worked with ten technical experts from State and Federal agencies to pare down the bird list. The ultimate goal is to direct longleaf conservation efforts to the highest priority areas, “to help us do the right things in the right places,” Rideout said.

The six species were chosen for their close association with the habitat features specific to longleaf and open pine ecosystems, including openness in the canopy that allows sunlight to hit the ground, a diverse understory and regular fire. They include Bachman’s sparrow, a ground-nesting bird that prefers a dense, herbaceous understory in open pine savannas, and the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered bird that nests in mature pine trees that are generally 70 years and older. The other species are the Henslow’s sparrow, Southeastern American kestrel, Northern bobwhite, and brown-headed nuthatch.

Another factor in choosing the six species was how much is known about them. Rideout said “It’s helpful to use umbrella species that are fairly well-studied and understood in terms of their habitat requirements.”

Working with Dr. James “Barry” Grand of the U.S. Geological Survey, the Joint Venture developed an Open Pine Decision Support Tool that uses information about the six bird species from various sources to prioritize conservation areas, using a mathematical equation to factor in variables such as the presence of sustainable bird populations; the feasibility of prescribed burning; suitability for growing longleaf; and long-term potential for continued conservation.

The results are a series of maps prioritizing the best places in the Joint Venture landscape for conserving and restoring the longleaf pine forest to meet bird population objectives.

Recently, Grand extended the reach of the Decision Support Tool to the historic range of longleaf east of the Mississippi River, well beyond the Joint Venture’s borders. He also broadened the species represented by adding two terrestrial species to the model, the gopher tortoise and Louisiana pine snake. In addition, Grand substituted the red-headed woodpecker for the American kestrel, because the woodpecker’s distribution is better understood.

Interestingly, the changes were barely noticeable on the landscape scale.

“It tells me that birds do a pretty good job of representing habitat requirements for those herps. They were good surrogates,” said Grand, who is located Auburn University along with Rideout.

The tool is still awaiting peer review, but already it’s made an impact. The State of Alabama and the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Alabama used a prototype of the Decision Support Tool to prioritize funding proposals, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is leading a campaign to restore millions of acres of longleaf forest, used a version of the Joint Venture tool to solicit funding proposals in high priority areas.

Stacy Shelton, USFWS Southeast Region



Last updated: December 11, 2014

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