Forest management for the birds

Tips for attracting the greatest diversity of birds to your forested property.

Where a bird nests and spends most of its time depends on the food, water and shelter, or habitat, available. When a bird builds a nest in the spring, it is making a place to lay eggs and hatch young. Both of these activities require a lot of energy from the bird, meaning the bird must have a continuous supply of nutrient rich foods. If your goal is to attract the greatest diversity of birds to your forested property, consider providing a variety of food and nesting locations.

Create an avian smorgasbord 

Some birds have a varied diet, ranging from sunflower seeds to crayfish. Additionally, the diet of most birds will vary throughout the time of year. For example, northern cardinals, who stay in Michigan throughout the year, will eat primarily insects while nesting and rearing young in the spring and summer months, because of the increased nutrients they provide. In the winter months, northern cardinals will readily eat less nutritious seeds, fruits and berries that remain on the plant to survive. Many other birds also follow this pattern. In order to feed overwintering birds year round, it is important to provide a landscape that is rich with insect attracting flowers in the spring and summer months and persistent berries in the fall and winter months. Mary Wilson of Michigan State University Extension wrote an article titled “Native Plants of Michigan Landscapes” that includes species that are beneficial for birds. 

Providing a variety of flowering plants and shrubs native to Michigan will help to attract numerous bird species. Native plants and shrubs provide more nutritious berries than non-native plants and shrubs. The removal of non-native plants and shrubs like buckthorns and honeysuckles improves food availability. The variety of native flowers can be a source of nectar for hummingbirds, attract insects that can be dined upon by a variety of birds and produce fruits or seeds that will serve as a nutritious sendoff to many of our migratory birds. Seeds that fall on the ground will be consumed by our hardy, Michigan resident birds before the snow falls. 

Provide a variety of habitat opportunities 

Summer landscapes that attract the greatest variety of birds provide an assortment of nesting, food and water sources. The assortment can be created by diversifying the structure of the forest. The structure of the forest refers to the vertical and horizontal arrangement of forest. The different heights of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants make up with vertical structure, while the distance from one branch to another makes up the horizontal structure. The structure preferred by different bird species depends on where it likes to nest, what it eats, and how it hunts for food. 

For example, birds such as flycatchers and warblers that catch insects while flying from branch to branch will most appreciate a densely packed forest structure as opposed to more open. Predatory birds like hawks build nests in the upper reaches of trees and prefer a more open forest structure that allows them to swoop down to catch prey. Whip-poor-wills, a seasonal resident of Michigan, nests in the leaves on the ground in densely vegetated shaded locations, usually near an open field. Whip-poor-wills are nocturnal, flying around the open areas at night catching insects and resting in the refuge of its hidden nest throughout the day. 

It is also important to consider the habitat provided to year round residents. Native plants like holly and sweet bay magnolia, which keep their leaves throughout the winter months will provide continuous shelter for our resident friends, protecting them from the harsh winter temperatures and precipitation that is typical throughout Michigan. Adding conifers to hardwood forest areas will also help to create a welcome habitat for overwintering birds. 

In addition to providing year round cover for overwintering birds, it is important to be sure that there are standing dead trees, or snags, and coarse woody debris throughout the property. Most of the species of woodpeckers found in Michigan also overwinter in Michigan, with the exception of the yellow-bellied sapsucker (which migrates to Southern portions of North America). Woodpeckers are primarily cavity nesters in that they prefer to construct nests in snags, or in hollow, excavated live trees. Woodpeckers in general are “primary excavators”, meaning they actually construct a hole (cavity) in which they then build a nest. They do this using their beak to hollow out a cavity in the rotting wood of a snag. The cavity may be used by the woodpecker initially, but will then be used by “secondary cavity nesters”, or by raccoons, flying squirrels, bluebirds, kestrels, tree swallows and even salamanders and snakes. 

Forest management can help create habitat 

If you are interested in creating habitat described above, consider talking to a consulting forester to help you come up with a plan. Through forest management, you can create openings in the canopy of the forest that will provide sunlight for a greater diversity of plants and shrubs to grow. Forest management can also help to diversify the structure of your forest, increase the health of the trees and attract a greater variety of wildlife, including birds, to the area. 

These are just a few tips for inviting different bird species to use your forested landscape. More information can be found by visiting the following links:

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