Species-Specific Management (SSM)

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Songbirds

Most people want many species on their areas. The number of each species needs to be sufficient so that at least a few can be seen each year. Rarely do people want great numbers of any species. That is the assumption for this area.

Management Tactics

Here are the ways to get the birds . . .

  1. Mixtures of land use, pastures, ponds, grain fields, cropland, woodlots, forests, fallow areas - all mixed together will produce the greatest bird richness. To add species to a daily list, a bird watcher will go to another type of land use. The more types that there are in a small area, the better for the birds.
  2. The number of age classes is more important than types when it comes to positively influencing bird richness.
  3. Forest management practices influence faunal spaces of birds by altering stand presence, composition, structure, and understory vegetation. Birds exist in or are said to select for factors that enhance their survival. Available, diverse food in a timely manner, is a critical resource for birds and may influence reproductive success and survival of breeding birds. Deciduous species support a higher abundance and biomass of arthropod food for birds than evergreen species. Where there is no understory light, there will be plant leaves (foliage mass) thus few arthropods. Understory light positively influences presence, abundance, and sugar content of soft mast as bird food.
  4. Within the above, the common element is the layer. Management of many populations of song birds in a small area requires many layers. Work to achieve them; work harder to maintain stable volumes of them. Grass, low shrub, tall shrub-sapling, and canopy are four recognized layers in forests. The more layers there are in any area, the more bird species there will be. Fire and grazing reduce the layers; opening the canopy usually adds or maintains layers. Group-selection harvests can be used to work to achieve many layers. Birds are fairly layer-specific. Overstory canopy closure of 50-70 percent is desired for the top layer. The layers are soil (insects, etc.; and hyporheic or under the surface) , ground, shrub, intermediate, and upper. ("Top," or "upper" can be misleading. Number the layers. To achieve them:
    1. Keep livestock grazing patchy to maintain breeding or courtship cover, nesting cover (tall grass = 18 inches), brood cover (tall forbs with sparse grass = 18 inches), food (forbs,sparse grass, and woody debris), and protective cover (thermal and escape = tall forbs and grass = 18 inches).
    2. Do not install electric fencing or additional water facilities that contribute to uniform grazing.
    3. Implement patch burning to provide the structural, compositional, and spatial diversity suggested.
    4. Eliminate the regular use of broadcast herbicides that eliminate annual and perennial food sources (both seeds and foraging insects).
    5. Convert patches of introduced forages into native warm season grasses and forbs. Consult the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Ecological Site Guides (located in NCRS county offices) to select the appropriate plant composition.
    6. Native forbs may need to be protected from deer or livestock grazing, late spring burning, and herbicides. Fencing may be useful. They are preferred to cultivated crops. Grain sorghum or alfalfa may be useful substitutes if native forbs are inadequate.Leave 14 inches or more of stubble in cultivated fields that are harvested in agricultural operations. Do not use insecticides on cultivated crops.
    7. Never cut hay meadows twice or cut them late since this has has negative impacts on forage quality, plant species composition, and residual winter cover.
    8. Manage windbreaks and living snow fences. Manage forest edges.
  5. Have as many types of trees as possible. It is desirable for these to be in stands of 5 acres (2 hectares) or more but birds ofien respond will to groups of 4 to 5 trees of the same species. All-white-pine or all-tulip-poplar forests may be good based on short-term economics, but great bird richness will not result. Studying site conditions and favoring the trees likely to do best on each site will probably be as good for birds as for long-term, lowered-risk forest investors.
  6. Have all stand age-classes present in the vicinity. This means a planned rotation with some area-regulation. Age is more important to most species than the forest type.
  7. Work to favor those species that are conspicuous for boldness (e.g., chickadees, color (e.g., cardinal), and size(e.g., pileated woodpecker).
  8. Some species (e.g., indigo bunting, towhee) need young stands (0- to 5-years old). These probably work best when they are 10-20 acres in size. These same birds can be found along day-lighted roads, powerline strips, and next to farm land.
  9. Other species (e.g., downy woodpeckers) need dense young stands (2000 to 8000 stems per acre). (Yes, downy woodpeckers are found elsewhere, but having a sufficient number every year requires at least some good animal space for them.)
  10. (We do not use the word "habitat" any more since it has no real meaning. We need to think about a special concept of space (the forest volume . . . above the trees . . . and under the leaves . . . and food . . . and hiding places . . . and protected places (permanent refuges) . . . even animals next to each other (flocks and coveys) . . . all over many years.) We use faunal space.
  11. There are not many bird species in the young stage of the forest, but it is essential, and the age class leads to the next.
  12. The next needed stage has many dying stems. The canopy is full and a few tree boles have reached the size of pulpwood sticks. Some warblers, thrushes, and the hairy woodpecker show up here.
  13. The mature forest is the largest age class and it is where most species of birds occur. They are often difficult to see (in the tall canopy), are poorly known, but represent the real forest bird species richness.
  14. There are areas in most forests that are inaccessible, uneconomical, and real trouble. Leave them alone to age. Protect them from fire. They are "for the birds" and can be rich areas for a large number of species, especially the insect eaters such as the pileated woodpecker. Foot and horse trails into these areas can allow the "harvest" of the benefits from birds so abundant there.
  15. Each species has different requirements. You can work for species or work for many different areas that will probably match up well with the needs of a species in some year in the future. (The suggestion does not sound very specific, but it is practical, especially viewed over the long run and when funds are limited for species-specific work.)
  16. Work for different type stands. All-white-pine or all-tulip-poplar forests may be good based on short term economics, but great bird richness will not result. Studying site conditions and favoring the trees likely to do best on each site will probably be as good for birds as for long-term, lowered-risk forest investors.
  17. Food and cover needs to be scattered widely. Many bird species are territorial and occupy large areas (defend against other bird use).
  18. If you want to see birds or to obtain large numbers, work for contrasting edges. [A 50-year old white oak stand adjacent to a 30-year old scarlet oak stand produces an edge, but it is not a contrasting edge!] Edges disappear over time (as, for example, when a clear cut changes to a 40-year old stand adjacent to a 80-year old stand).
  19. Large stands tend to protect the birds living in the center. Around the edges in a wide zone (200 yards from a contrasting edge) birds are preyed upon by other birds, namely crows, blue jays, and cow birds. Large stands, or large stands with small group-selection-cuts in the center far from the edges, tend to have more birds per acre than small stands. There is a trade off (which is still being studied) between benefits of contrasting forest edges, and the detrimental nest parasitism and predation that occurs there.
  20. Group-selection tree harvests produce abundant edge length (per unit of enclosed area).
  21. Edges for birds need to be managed to increase length, width of influence, height (related to layers present), and quality (e.g., an edge between a planted wildlife food patch and a 20-year old white pine stand is much better for birds than the same length edge between a laurel thicket and a 100 year old table-mountain-pine stand). The idea of wildlife edge is a volume (length x width x height x quality of this volume for any one species). "Edge" is a species-specific concept for the modern wildlife manager.
  22. In patches, cut the tops out of conifer trees to allow them to "hedge out" and thereby prevent the loss of dense cover (in mature conifer stands). They increase wind protection and provide select nesting sites. At 4-8 feet, they contribute to one recognized layer.
  23. Openings, like wildlife clearings and road-side daylighted zones, can be managed for birds by cleaning out vegetation and making tepee-shaped brush piles, favoring shrubs like:
    dogwood, viburnum, laurel, hawthorn, crabapple, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, sumac, grape, and other sun-responding food producers
  24. These edges and openings need to be dense and function during an early spring snowfall. That is the time for which you need to prepare for the birds.
  25. Try to get 2-4 snags per acre (1 per 1300 feet of stream buffer zone that is 50 feet wide will meet this recommendation). If the snags are not naturally available, use an axe and frill the bark around some poor-form trees and allow them to die. This will also influence the number and density of forest layers -- two benefits from one action.
  26. Protect the stream edges, at least 50 feet on each side. Some bird species live only in these zones (e.g., winter wren, water thrush). The shrubs near the average stream support abundant insect bird food. Some birds nest and feed only along stream edges.
  27. Prescribed burns can be used carefully. Fires alter forest development and change the plant communities upon which birds feed and use. Depending on species and their feeding behavior, fires produce for them more or less plant (e.g., seeds and soft mast) or animal food and nesting opportunities.
  28. Develop (or protect with fencing and other devices) ponds, marshes, and wetlands.
  29. Favor springs and seeps. (Stay out of them; do not cut trees in or around them, especially those that cast an afternoon shadow on them.) They are great feeding places for many birds. Most eastern forests have plenty of water, but small ponds or "puddle holes" scooped out nearby roads can benefit many birds. Whether essential for a drink or not, these areas are attractive to birds. The resource manager is interested in see-able birds near roads or trails, not just any or all birds.
  30. Nest boxes can be put out for owls and ducks. Even in pole-sized stands they will be used.
  31. Bird houses make good handicraft projects and when built to specifications (information available) are often used. Put them up only in the proper places for each species and restore them annually.
  32. Dump a truck load of livestock manure near a forested wet spot to "grow earthworms" to attract woodcock and other birds.
  33. Feeders will increase birds, especially if they are diverse, well positioned, and maintained. There is a danger that bird diseases may be related to feeders (salmonellosis, aspergillosis, avian pox, and mycoplasmosis). The disease problem can be reduced by keeping them spread out, cleaning up under them (or moved when needed), removing sharp edges or points, cleaning them (dipping occasionally for 3 minutes in 1 to 9 parts Clorox to water), using good food, keeping out rodents, and calling when you see sick birds (more than one or two): National Wildlife Health Center, USGS, Biological Resources Division, 6006 Schroeder Road, Madison, WI 53711-6223 (608-264-5411).
  34. Plant an annual bird food patch about 55 feet by 200 feet where soil is good, tractor access is easy, sunlight abundant, and deer not feeding heavily. Use millet, sorghum, lespedeza, clover, and a variety of grasses (minimum or no fescue) with some warm-season grasses.
  35. Fence out cattle. (Deer have reduced some bird populations by destroying one or more vegetation layers.)
  36. Get rid of house cats in and near the area.
  37. Get rid of free-ranging dogs.
  38. Avoid mass insecticide applications. Select non-toxic mixtures and make applications and clean-up work so as to minimize probable effects.
  39. Use handtools or herbicide to poison individual unwanted plants. Powersaws are most economical for thinning stands.) Be careful about equipment cleanup.
  40. Create living "scenes", places of great beauty that will be made more beautiful by the presence of a bird (e.g., a rocky area with hemlock which when covered with snow awaits a cardinal on a branch). These do not have to be "photo opportunities", simply creative landscaping that includes birds.
  41. Provide in open areas, clumps of brush, rock outcrops (built up), and even posts to provide viewing and resting sites for birds.
  42. In open areas, run a brushhog or large mower around grassed areas to provide diversified vegetation, access to insects, travel lanes, and protection of young birds (poults) leaving the nest.
  43. Develop foot trails from which birds can be readily seen.
  44. Conduct a bird survey in early spring and again near Christmas. Keep a record of the birds to follow your progress and changes. Keep a total list of species seen. Compete with another landowner to see who has the longest list.
  45. Some birds are busy in the night. Keep separate records of bird-watching at night, especially as related to moonlight, season, and time since twilight.
  46. Consider opportunities for an Avi course, a place for the new sport of bird watching.
  47. Consider taking a guided national or international tour to add birds to your life list.
  48. Invite people to see your birds. Encourage springtime bird watching. Bring together birds and appreciative people.Get as much use and benefits as possible out of your resource.

See the story behind the Bird Feeding Society

Eastern Song Sparrow

The eastern song sparrow, Melospiza melodia melodia, is beneficial to farmers and gardeners since much of its diet consists of a variety of insect pests and weed seeds. It is also valued by bird watchers, gardeners, land owners, and other nature lovers for its aesthetic qualities such as its songs and its tameness when fed.

Realizing the positive values of the eastern song sparrow, people can do many things to encourage population increases in this species.

  1. Get the territory size as small as possible to maximize the population. The bird's most favorable habitat can be provided by maintaining a field of shrubs with trees bordered by a stream.
  2. Prevent any open areas that have been provided for this bird's habitat to be mown since this will enhance the bird's risk of being killed by a predator like a hawk.
  3. Encourage farmers to provide such habitat on their farms by being certain that they know of the beneficial value of this bird for their crops. Perhaps, they should allow a field or meadow, wholly or partly, to grow into a shrubby area. Also, you should encourage managed areas that are moist and/or near water (a pond, stream, swamp, or river). If the area is not near such a body of water, then the farmer should be encouraged to construct a nearby pond.
  4. If the area in which this bird is desired has no nearby body of water, then a pond should be constructed. The pond should be close to a forest edge where the edge has been cleared to allow low dense vegetation to form.
  5. A large part of their diet consists of seeds of many grasses, weeds, and wild berries and fruits. You can plant and maintain many of these plant species in an edge habitat that is also near water. Such plants include:

    crabgrass, knotweeds, chickweed, pigeongrass, wild sunflower, dock, timothy lamb's quarters, ragweed, old-witch grass, gromwell, sheep-sorre, barnyard grass, purslane, wood-sorrel, panic-grass, amaranth, dandelion, orchard/yard grasses

    Wild berries and fruits include:

    blueberries, blackberries, wild cherries, strawberries, elderberries, woodbine berries, raspberries, grapes

  6. Plants which are important for nest sites should also be planted and maintained in edges to encourage the population to increase. Grasses, sedges, cattails, a wide variety of bushes and shrubs, and, though rarely, many tree species, are among the plants which are important to the eastern song sparrow for nest sites.
  7. Neighbors should also be encouraged to provide such foraging and nesting plants in the edge habitats on their areas for further assistance in raising the population.
  8. Also, gardeners may be convinced to provide and maintain plants in which these birds build their nest since these birds consume many of the weed seeds and insect pests that can affect gardens. These plants should be in edge environments that are moist and/or near water for the best results in encouraging a population increase.
  9. Also, gardeners and farmers may be convinced to feed these birds surplus or non-market bread crumbs and sunflower seeds in order to attract and sustain a high population.
  10. Domestic cats are a major, effective predator. In the presence of cats, most other efforts will fail. Habitat takes a long time to reach desirable conditions but cat populations can change quickly.
  11. Managed areas need to be monitored in order to assure their success in maintaining a viable population.
  12. Written records of monitoring and maintenance need to be kept as a reference for future management.
  13. While many sparrows are migratory, some are sedentary. Thus, people should watch for any remaining birds during the winter and leave food (bread crumbs and sunflower seeds) out for them since food can be scarce during winter.
  14. In spring and summer, nests need to be checked for brown-headed cowbird eggs. If any eggs of this parasitic nester are found in the sparrow's nests, then these eggs need to be thrown out. These sparrows are frequent victims of cowbirds, and fledging success of sparrows is greatly reduced by cowbirds.
Typical Inland Songbird Species Associations
Water and Marsh Grass and Pasture Brush Hardwood
Wood Duck Bobwhite Catbird Carolina Chickadee
Red-winged Blackbird Red-winged Blackbird Yellow-breasted Chat Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Green Heron Killldeer Brown Thrasher Woodpeckers (several)
Great Blue Heron Eastern Kingbird Song Sparrow Acaduian Flycatcher
Belted Kingfisher Horned Lark Field Sparrow Ovenbird
White-eyed Vireo Eastern Bluebird Rufus-sided Towhee Black and White Warbler
Snipe Loggerhead Shrike Hooded Warbler Kentucky Warbler
Woodcock Mourning Dove Carolina Wren Wood Thrush
Song Sparrow Common Crow Indigo Bunting Red-eyed Vireo
Yellowthroat Warbler Starling Prairie Warbler Scarlrt Tanager
Coot Easten Meadowlark White-eyed Vireo Summer Tanager
Acadian Flycatcher Swallows Cardinal Crested Flycatcher
      Tufted Titmouse
      Blue Jay
Within Pines     White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch     Carolina Wren
Pine Warbler     Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Brown Creeper     Hooded Warbler
      Cardinal

You can see the species richness (avian biodiversity) that can result for songbirds from mixing the spaces and ages of these five places in a planned sequence over many years..

Robert H. Giles, Jr. (1992)

Notes from WRAP system of TVA. References by Susan B. Horne 1993

Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1968. Life Histories of North American Cardinals. Grosbeaks. Buntings. Towhees. Finches. Sparrows. and Their Allies. Bulletin of Smithsonian Institute. Washington, D. C. l491-1512.

Greensburg, Russell. 1988. Water as a Habitat Cue for Breeding Swamp and Song Sparrows, The Condor. The Cooper Ornithological Society. 420-427.

Nice, Margaret Morse. 196q. Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. Vol. 1. Dover Publications, Inc. 817,57-60,92-96.

Nice, Margaret Morse. 1964. Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. Vol. 2. Dover Publications, Inc. 151, 209, 266.

Watts, Bryan D. 1990. Cover Use and Predator-related Mortality in Song and Savannah Sparrows. Auk. Vol. 107. 775-778.


This Web site is maintained by R. H. Giles, Jr.
Last revision January 17, 2000.