What birds tell us about the forest


Some bird species have integrated so well into our human communities that we often don’t think of them as being as wild as other wildlife, like pigeons. 

While that birdhouse may be a decent spot for mountain or western bluebirds, most birds need their natural bird habitat just as much as deer, elk and mountain lions need theirs. 

“There are more bird species in our surrounding forests than you would know from a casual walk — it takes repeated visitations and patient observation to fully appreciate just how diverse the bird community is,” said Herb Grover, vice president of the Weminuche Audubon Society in Pagosa Springs and one of the coordinators of a citizen science project studying bird communities in the ponderosa pine forests surrounding Pagosa Springs. 

It is no surprise that a primary bird habitat is the forest, but the quality of habitat is more nuanced than a binary question of whether it does or doesn’t exist. The density of trees, the presence or lack of fire, and tree species diversity all contribute to conditions that can be favorable or detrimental to different bird species.

What if we turned that concept around? Instead of looking at the forest for its suitability for birds, why not observe birds to see how suitable they find the conditions in the forest? Therefore, when changes occur in the forest, such as wildfire, prescribed burning, climate change or thinning dense areas, birds can let us know how they were impacted and what those changes mean for a thriving forest community. 

That’s exactly what the Weminuche Audubon Society has taken on.

Grover went on to say, “The presence of a robust and diverse bird community is critical to forest health simply because many of the bird species that come to forests in our region are insectivorous — they eat bugs. If the bird community is diminished and fewer insects are consumed, that does not bode well for forest vegetation.”

Grover, along with co-authors Jean Zirnhelt, president of the Weminuche Audubon Society, and Keith Bruno, Southwest Colorado community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, just released the project report for an ongoing study now in its fifth year entitled “Bird Communities in Dry-Mixed Conifer Forests of the Southern San Juan Mountains of CO: A Citizen Science Project” discussing their findings on how bird communities are affected by forest disturbances and forest management decisions in a handful of sites near Pagosa Springs. 

It’s important to note that these are long-term trends with conclusions becoming clearer over time.

“Our study has revealed that about half of the 88 bird species we’ve observed in our research are migratory, with the remaining bird species spending the entire year in or near our region,” said Bruno. “Furthermore, fully one-third of resident bird species, and two-thirds of migratory bird species, are experiencing a troubling decline in population numbers.”

The findings suggest that forests like those studied in this project provide breeding habitat critical for the survival of many bird species threatened by habitat destruction and other environmental changes they encounter along their migratory routes. 

Moreover, the importance of a rich and vibrant bird community to forest health is incalculable, all of which highlights the important connection between birds and forest management, something both Grover and Bruno discuss as members of San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP). 

The team integrates its findings into community-driven decisions about natural resource management and helps connect their research with action.

Grover, Bruno and Zirnhelt all agree that bringing the knowledge gained through this citizen science project is important, not only because the volunteers participating in the study are rewarded with a better understanding of bird communities and forest ecology, but because land managers can use this information to better inform their land management decisions.

While the research speaks for itself, seeing the birds and their environment is unequaled in its impact on community members. As such, the Weminuche Audubon Society and SJHFHP are teaming up to provide a tour of their sites on June 21. It will be an opportunity to learn how a healthy bird community is integral to a healthy forest. 

If you are interested in learning more details about the tour or forest restoration, wildfire mitigation, birds and SJHFHP, reach out to Alex Handloff, SJHFHP coordinator, at alex@mountainstudies.org.