Every now and then a book comes along which every landowner will want as a reference. The title explains the book’s purpose: A land manager’s guide to conserving habitat for forest birds in southern Ontario, by Dawn Burke, Ken Elliott, Karla Falk, and Teresa Piraino, 2011. What the title fails to convey, however, is just how exquisitely put together this Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources publication is.

On one level it’s a well-illustrated coffee table book. A flip through the volume reveals many pieces of the work of wildlife artist Peter Burke and the contributions of many photographers. The bird portraits are varied and illustrative. For example, a shot by Robert McCaw of a pair of nesting pileated woodpeckers makes the gender distinction between the otherwise-identical birds easy: the male’s red crest continues down to his beak. The female, on the other hand, has a black “moustache.” An image which sticks in my mind is a Ken Elliott shot of the forest-floor nest of an ovenbird. It’s just a dark spot in the leaf cover, but the zoom shows the nest. So much for carefree walks through forest leaves in spring: I could step on one of these and not even realize it.

A later section of the book is set up as a guide to forest-dwelling birds, beginning with my personal favourite, the ruffed grouse. Perhaps the most interesting page is the profile of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I have long suspected this critter of killing off the odd white birch in my garden by drilling its neat rows of holes for sap and insects, but I hadn’t realized that hummingbirds depend heavily upon sapsuckers for their survival. Apparently the little guys follow sapsuckers around and can’t survive without them. I’d always wondered what happened to the hummingbirds if cottagers forgot to fill those red feeders.

If there’s a villain in the book it’s the cowbird, the biggest natural threat to the survival of songbirds in Ontario. Cowbirds don’t raise their own young. Instead, the female lays up to forty eggs per year in other birds’ nests. Robins and blue jays simply eject the strange eggs and continue nesting. Other birds don’t have that evolutionary advantage, and often raise the fast-maturing cowbird chicks to the detriment of their own smaller and later-maturing offspring. Cowbirds love lawns and closely-grazed pasture. The further the forest-dweller’s nest is from the habitat of the cowbird, the more likely the pair is to raise their young successfully. According to Elliott, that’s a main reason why houses in the woods (with their lawns) are tough on forest birds.

But the main purpose of the book is to provide a primer on forest succession and management of tree harvesting activities to protect or improve bird habitat. In a presentation at the Annual Kemptville Woodlot Conference last week, author Ken Elliott put up slides to illustrate tree growth over the thirty-year period after different harvesting methods. He explained to us that these colour illustrations had to look as good as the rest of the book, so he asked artist Peter Burke to do paintings of each type of tree, then Lyn Thompson and Ken used Photoshop to group the paintings into the denser figures for the blocks on the chart. It wouldn’t hurt to have a magnifying glass at hand when perusing this volume. A great deal of material went into it, so even the small photos hold interest.

For me the most startling illustration in the book is a map of southern Ontario which graphs tree cover. The counties north of Lake Erie show very little green on the map. This is the area which was almost a desert in 1905 when Edmund Zavitz began his lifelong mission to bring it back to health with tree plantings. Even with the 50 Million Trees Program currently under way in Ontario, Essex County still has only 5% tree cover.

Our area of eastern Ontario, on the other hand, boasts 48% tree cover, so our growth area lies in connecting forest patches and managing existing forests to increase the distance of the woodlot core from its edges and marauding cowbirds.

The core of the book’s content deals with harvesting methods in woodlots. Clear cut, shelterwood, group selection, diameter-limit, stand improvement and single-tree selection harvest plans are examined with explanations and graphs indicating the impact of each harvest method on 85 species of forest-dwelling birds.  For the forester the critique of each method may prove informative.  It appears as though, apart from clear cutting, diameter-limit harvesting is the most damaging to the health of woodlots, yet municipalities regularly legislate diameter limits because they are easy to understand and enforce.

I asked Ken, “Why should woodlot owners be concerned about the bird population of their property?”

“I think the best explanation comes on page 81 of the book. Birds have evolved as a fundamental part of these ecosystems. Although you often don’t see them or what they are doing, they can usually be heard and it should be reassuring to know that the work they do as pollinators, insect predators, seed dispersers, and fungi vectors may be critical to the overall health of forests. On top of this their beauty and elusiveness provide entertainment for many nature enthusiasts and hunters. So although we can’t say what the forest would be like without birds, we do know that having them in the forest provides an important piece of the puzzle and seeing and hearing them is a great reward for those who get time to go exploring in the woods.”


A land manager’s guide… is available in full colour online as a PDF file at http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en/Business/Forests/Publication/STDPROD_089385.html.

Have a look.  Then you can order a hard copy (ISBN 978-1-4435-0097-5) for $15.00 from the Landowner Resource Centre in Manotick.