North American Breeding Bird Survey data show that wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) populations in eastern U.S. forests have declined 1.8% per year during 1966-95. The declining quality of breeding forest tracts in North America is one possible cause for the apparent decline of some neotropical migratory birds, such as the wood thrush. In Georgia, however, wood thrush populations have declined during a period of increasing pine forest area and larger patch sizes. We hypothesized that forest management practices such as thinning and prescribed burning might create unsuitable habitat for wood thrushes. We conducted a four-year before/after, treatment/control experiment at the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge in central Georgia to study to the effects of a treatment of thinning and prescribed burning on wood thrush demographic parameters. We simultaneously monitored wood thrush adults and juveniles with mark-recapture, radio-telemetry, nest searches, and plot-map surveys. Our analyses showed that wood thrushes were less likely to emigrate from the study compartments after the treatment, and wood thrushes exhibited some tendency to increase preference for hardwood habitats and decrease preference for pine habitats following the treatment. However, we observed no effects of treatment on nest success, adult survival, and adult and juvenile dispersal distances. We also found that female wood thrushes had lower survival rates than males during the breeding season, and we documented large-scale, within-year dispersal movements of adult (up to 17 km) and juvenile (up to 7 km) wood thrushes. We conclude that landscape level habitat quantity and quality must be considered during songbird management decisions. The documentation of sex- and age-specific wood thrush survival and movement rates was critical for construction of a set of population models. We used three stochastic models to learn more about wood thrush population dynamics and make predictions about population growth rates, reproductive success, and the effect of habitat changes on wood thrush populations. The simplest source/sink population model suggests that the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge's wood thrush population is probably stable or increasing, and wood thrush populations in treated areas had higher growth rates than birds in untreated areas. We were able to use the individual-based model of wood thrush productivity to predict fecundity, a parameter that we could not measure directly in the field. Again, females on treated areas had higher fecundity than birds on untreated areas. Our spatially-based model predicted that wood thrush populations should respond positively to predicted changes in the age/size class structure of the Refuge's pine forests. Our model also showed that most wood thrushes leave the Refuge's forest compartments during the breeding season, and these dispersal movements are extremely important to understanding and managing wood thrush populations. The use of prescribed burning and retention shelterwood silviculture at the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge does not appear to negatively affect the local wood thrush population. Continued use of the current management regime should result in adequate nesting, foraging, and escape habitats for wood thrushes. However, landscape-level habitat availability and quality, including lands outside the Refuge, must be considered when making management decisions that may affect wood thrushes.
Additional publication details
Experimental analysis and simulation modeling of forest management impacts on wood thrushes, Hylocichla mustelina