There’s a tendency to think of the hardwood forests of the South as pristine, undisturbed, and unchanging. But forests are constantly changing, which is a good thing for disturbance-dependent species that require open structural conditions created immediately after forest disturbances or at some point early in the process of recovery.
Historically and still today, windstorms, southern pine beetle outbreaks, landslides, and the occasional lightning-ignited fire created patches of young forest. These patches provide shrubby cover as well as food – lush foliage, flowers that attract insects, and up to 19 times more native fruits such as blackberry, pokeweed, and blueberry.
Many birds require specific habitats ranging from young forest to grasslands, and several southern Appalachian species are typically associated with human-modified environments. For example, eastern meadowlarks require open fields with tall, continuous grass cover. Chipping sparrows need open, mowed areas. Eastern bluebirds require open fields where nest boxes are provided, or open forests with abundant snags. Song sparrows and northern mockingbirds occur almost exclusively in garden habitats or suburban residential areas.
Since natural forces rarely, if ever, create meadows, abandoned pastures, gardens, or suburbs, how did these disturbance-dependent species historically persist? One disturbance in particular is often overlooked: humans.
Over 4,000 years ago, Native Americans were creating settlements, gardens, farmlands, meadows and prairies, open woodlands, canebrakes, and abandoned old fields at varying stages of succession. European settlement began in the mid- to late 1700s, and by the early 1800s most Native American populations had been severely reduced by disease and warfare. European settlers cultivated large areas, and frequently burned large landscapes to promote forage for free-ranging livestock. These human-created habitats allowed many disturbance-dependent wildlife species to thrive in our upland hardwood forests.
By creating habitat for species that would otherwise be rare or limited in distribution, humans – first Native Americans and later European settlers – have functioned as a “keystone species” for thousands of years.
Many types of early successional or heavily disturbed habitats were likely at their historical high in the early 1900s due to widespread logging, wildfires, and farming practices that commonly left weedy fencerows and fallow fields. Today, early successional habitats are likely at an historical low. Family-run farming operations have diminished since the 1960s, replaced by industrialized farming practices that use equipment and herbicides to eliminate weed and brush cover. Forests on public lands have been allowed to mature for the past century. Finally, human population growth, land ownership patterns, urban sprawl, and second homes have fragmented forests and removed large areas from the wildland base.
About 90 percent of the land within the hardwood forest region of the Southeast is privately owned. Landowners can help conserve forest species and disturbance-dependent species with small changes in farming practices, such as:
- Avoiding mowing or brush-hogging hay lands between mid-April and Mid-August when grassland birds such as Eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, and grasshopper sparrows are nesting;
- Leaving fallow fields between crop rotations; and
- Keeping some of the farming practices “messy” – such as maintaining fencerows, weedy areas, brush piles, and un-mowed areas in fields.
Even places such as utility rights-of-way can provide good habitat for some species. Heavy forest thinning can also promote young forest conditions, and if followed by frequent prescribed fire can encourage development of open woodlands with an herbaceous understory. Many universities and state agencies offer extension wildlife programs, which are available to landowners who are interested in managing their lands to create wildlife habitat.
For more information, email Katie Greenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.