Young Forest Habitats

Plant communities are always undergoing change, sometimes fairly benign while at other times quite profound. Once a field is left fallow, a number of woody and herbaceous plants will colonize the area. As these trees, shrubs, and herbs grow, an old field community develops. Eventually the canopies intertwine and a young forest develops. Eventually the forest matures into a high forest community. It is this more mature association that most people identify with when thinking about a proper “forest”. People often view young forests in negative terms, thinking of it as brush land or shrub brush etc. Despite this perception, both the old field and young forest communities are very important habitats for a number of bird and animal species, many of which are highly dependent on these areas for food and cover. Young forests can also develop when something happens to an older growth forest to create significant disturbances in the canopy and pave the way for the growth and development of young trees and shrubs in the openings. This process of disturbing the existing canopy is sometimes called setting back “forest succession” because larger older growth trees are replaced by smaller trees and the whole process of forest development begins anew. Some activities that can set back forest succession creating a younger forest include logging operations, forest fires, storms, and insects or disease.

Young Forest Habitat

Credit: - Mike Kay

In the early 1900’s through the 1960’s our region had abundant young forests due to abandonment of marginal farmland, large forest fires, and large scale logging operations. Since that time these activities have been curtailed and existing younger forests have matured so that old field and young forest communities are in a state of steady decline.

With the exception of the state of Maine, most Eastern states have witnessed a 30% or greater decline in young forests since the 1970’s. The loss of this important habitat has caused a marked decline in a number of bird species that require young forests for their well being. Some of the birds that display declining populations include golden-winged warbler, whip-poor-will, and Eastern towhee. The ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail, and woodcock show similar declines. A recent study lists at least 50 species of birds that are dependent to a greater or lesser extent on young forest habitats. Some scientists predict that many of these early successional-dependent birds will become scarce if this trend continues. The proliferation of deer, causing habitat degradation and spread of invasive plants, also impacts many of these declining bird populations. How do we reverse this trend? Some proven methods for developing old fields and small forests include creating openings during logging operations, controlled burning where appropriate, allowing old fields to develop, establish new plantations, using mechanical means such as a bulldozer to knock down young forests to reverse succession and to control invasive plants, and reducing the deer herd. Groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society have identified this problem and have a number of publications and training programs to offer landowners and land managers the necessary information to develop this habitat type where it would be appropriate and worthwhile to do so. Many publications mention that having 12% of the landscape in old fields or young forests would be ideal to help these early successional-dependent wildlife.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 8/18/2013