Working Lands

Managing Habitat for Forest Birds


Forest habitats support more bird species than other habitat types. Managing forests for birds is highly compatible with managing forests for other purposes, including financial reasons. A clearcut in the middle of a large, mature forest will create habitat for birds that require successional (i.e. young, regenerating) forest habitat as well as yield marketable wood. As a result, much research has evaluated how birds and other wildlife respond to forest management and numerous resources are available to help landowners manage forests in New York State.

Habitat Description

In addition to differences in tree species composition, forests also differ by successional stage depending on their past disturbance histories. Forests range from early-successional sapling stages to mature forests and everything in between. Different birds are associated with different successional stages and types of forest, although many will use a range of both for their habitat. For most birds, the dominant tree species are less important than the physical structure of the trees and they look more at characteristics such as the density of ground and shrub-layer vegetation and canopy closure.  However, some birds do require a specific type of tree, a conifer, for example, to be present in order for a forest to be habitable. The management recommendations in this section apply largely to deciduous and mixed forests.


The most significant threats to New York forests are residential and commercial developments that lead to permanent conversions of forest to non-forest uses. Fires, floods, and ice storms might seem like they threaten forests, but these natural disturbances actually help maintain a matrix of successional stages across the landscape, providing habitat for the full diversity of bird species. Development not only destroys habitat, but it fragments the remaining habitat making it less suitable for birds.

Management Recommendations

If you haven't already, please visit our Decision Tree to determine if forest management makes sense for your property.

  • Think about the landscape and what your property has to offer.
    One of the first decisions the landowner will need to make is what successional stage should the management strive to achieve. Intensive management that removes a significant portion of the trees will set the forest back to earlier stages of succession and provide habitat for species that use successional forests. Intensive management opens the canopy, allowing more light to reach the forest floor, which prompts ground and shrub-layer vegetation growth. Less intensive or no management will leave a forest that supports birds that require more mature forests. Moderate intensity management through various types of partial harvests can allow some light to penetrate, but still retain a mostly or partially closed canopy. The decision about how intensively to manage a specific property should be made with the surrounding landscape in mind as much as the property to be managed. For example, if the landscape is predominantly mature forest, then creating some early-successional forest through logging will provide habitat for birds that might not be common in the area. In other situations where mature forests are lacking, simply doing nothing and allowing your forest to continue to mature might be the best management decision for birds. Use the Decision Tree to help guide your decisions.
  • Large forest blocks are better than small forest fragments.
    Small patches of forest surrounded by open fields or other non-forest land uses (i.e. fragmented forests) present big challenges for breeding forest birds. The edges that are created allow predators and nest parasites (Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in other birds' nests) easier access to nests, preventing many birds from successfully fledging young. Large, unfragmented forests help breeding birds avoid these challenges, resulting in more successful nesting.
  • A regenerating clearcut will provide habitat for many forest birds.  Work with a good forester.
    There are many different ways to manage forests. As a landowner, the decision about your management objectives is up to you, but achieving the desired management objectives is best left to a professional. A professional forester will know which trees should be removed to leave behind the kind of forest you are seeking and can oversee the logging and sale of the wood. Contact your local Department of Environmental Conservation office to get a list of qualified foresters in your area.
  • Beware of too many deer.
    In many areas of the state, deer are so abundant that they are having serious impacts on forest composition, biodiversity, and regeneration. In some cases, browsing deer can cause complete regeneration failure following a cut, with the result that a forest fails to grow back as the landowner desired. Forest managers must consider this carefully when planning logging operations.
  • Follow Best Management Practices.
    Forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) are practices that help protect soil and water resources during the process of forest management. Following BMPs does not constrain forest management options, but it allows landowners to pursue their preferred options while minimizing long-lasting site disturbance, erosion, and watershed impacts. BMPs guide such things as road building, stream crossings, and logging on slopes – all of which influence the impact of the operation on your property and your neighbors.

Helpful Resources

ConserveOnline resources for Private Forest Owners provides ideas and resources to forest landowners, as well as technical information on using best management practices. Implementing these conservation measures can even help private forest landowners meet their financial objectives.

DeGraaf, R. M., M. Yamasaki, W. B. Leak, A. M. Lester. 2005. Landowner's Guide to Wildlife Habitat: Forest Management for the New England Region. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press. 111 pages.

Hartley, M. J., K. L. Sullivan, M. F. Burger. 2004. Wildlife and Forestry in New York Northern Hardwoods: A Guide for Forest Owners and Managers. Audubon New York, Albany, New York. 40 pages. Available here.

Oehler, J. D., D. F. Covell, S. Capel, and B. Long, eds. 2006. Managing grasslands, shrublands, and young forest habitats for wildlife: a guide for the Northeast. New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.