of North American Forests
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Agriculture Handbook No. 511
Cover sketch: Saw-whet owl, by Bob Hines of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
Virgil E. Scott
Denver Wildlife Research Center
Keith E. Evans
North Central Forest Experiment Station
David R. Patton
Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station
Charles P. Stone
Denver Wildlife Research Center
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Scott, Virgil E., Keith E. Evans, David R. Patton, and Charles P. Stone.
1977. Cavity-nesting birds of North American forests. U.S. Dep. Agric., Agric. Handb. 511, 112 p.
Habitat, cavity requirements, and foods are described for 85 species of birds that nest in cavities in dead or decadent trees. Intensive removal of such trees would disastrously affect breeding habitat for many of these birds that help control destructive forest insects. Birds are illustrated in color; distributions are mapped.
|This Handbook is the result of a cooperative effort between the
Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Fish and Wildlife
Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Authors Scott and Stone are wildlife
research biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Denver Wildlife
Research Center. Scott is stationed in Fort Collins, Colorado. Authors Evans
and Patton are principal wildlife biologists with the Forest Service's North
Central Forest Experiment Station and Rocky Mountain Forest and Range
Experiment Station, respectively. Evans is stationed in Columbia, Missouri, in
cooperation with the University of Missouri, while Patton is stationed in
Tempe, Arizona, in cooperation with Arizona State University. Special thanks
are due Arthur Singer, who graciously donated the use of his ,illustrations
from "A guide to field identification: Birds of North America," by Robbins,
Bruun, and Zim, which are reproduced here with permission of the Western
Publishing Company. The distribution maps are also reproduced with the
permission of Western Publishing Company. © Copyright 1966 by Western
Publishing Company, Inc. We would like to thank Kimberly Hardin, Beverly
Roedner, Mary Gilbert, Steve Blair, and Michael, Leslie, and Mary Stone for
their assistance in collecting literature. A special thanks to Jill Whelan for
her assistance in literature searches, checking references and scientific
names, and assembling this publication. The assistance of Robert Hamre in
encouraging and guiding the preparation of this manuscript is acknowledged and
very much appreciated.
Cavity-Nesting Birds of
North American Forests
|Many species of cavity-nesting birds have declined because of
habitat reduction. In the eastern United States, where primeval forests are
gone, purple martins depend almost entirely on man-made nesting structures
(Allen and Nice 1952). The hole-nesting population of peregrine falcons
disappeared with the felling of the giant trees upon which they depended
(Hickey and Anderson 1969). The ivory-billed and red-cockaded woodpeckers are
currently on the endangered list, primarily as a result of habitat destruction
(Givens 1971 , Bent 1939). The wood duck was very scarce in many portions of
its range, at least in part, for the same reason and probably owes its present
status to provision of nest boxes and protection from overhunting.
Some 85 species of North American birds (table 1) excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees. Such trees, commonly called snags, have often been considered undesirable by forest and recreation managers because they are not esthetically pleasing, conflict with other forest management practices, may harbor forest insect pests, or may be fire or safety hazards. In the past such dead trees were often eliminated from the forest during a timber harvest. As a result, in some areas few nesting sites were left for cavity-nesting birds. Current well-intentioned environmental pressures to emphasize harvesting large dead or dying trees, if realized, would have further adverse effects on such ecologically and esthetically important species as woodpeckers, swallows, wrens, nuthatches, and owls - to name a few.
The majority of cavity-nesting birds are insectivorous. Because they make up a large proportion of the forest-dwelling bird population, they play an important role in the control of forest insect pests (Thomas et al. 1975). Woodpeckers are especially important predators of many species of tree-killing bark beetles (Massey and Wygant 1973). Bruns (1960) summarized the role of birds in the forests:
Within the community of all animals and plants of the forest, birds form an important factor. The birds generally are not able to break down an insect plague, but their function lies in preventing insect plagues. It is our duty to preserve birds for esthetic as well as economic reasons . . . where nesting chances are diminished by forestry work . . . . It is our duty to further these biological forces [birds, bats, etc.] and to conserve or create a rich arid diverse community. By such a prophylactic . . . the forests will be better protected than by any other means.
|Several of the birds that nest in cavities tend to be resident
(non-migrating) species (von Haartman 1968) and thus more amenable to local
habitat management practices than migratory species. Nest holes may be limiting
for breeding populations of at least some species (von Haartman 1956, Laskey
1940, Troetschler 1976, Kessell 1957). Bird houses have been readily accepted
by many natural cavity nesters, and increases in breeding density have resulted
from providing such structures (Hamerstrom et al. 1973, Strange et al. 1971 ,
Grenquist 1965), an indication that management of natural snags should be
Because nesting requirements vary by bird species, forest type, and geographic location, more research is needed to determine snag species, quality, and density of existing and potential cavity trees that are needed to sustain adequate populations of cavity-nesters. In a Montana study, for example, larch and paper birch snags were most frequently used by cavity-nesters (McClelland and Frissell 1975). The most frequently used trees were large, broken-topped larches (either dead or alive), greater than 25 inches diameter at breast height (dbh), and more than 50 feet tall. No particular snag density was recommended to managers. In the Pacific Northwest, Thomas et al. (1976) suggested about seven snags per acre to maintain 100 percent of the potential maximum breeding populations of cavity-nesters in ponderosa pine forests and six per acre in lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. In Arizona ponderosa pine forests, an average of 2.6 snags per acre (mostly ponderosa) were used by cavity-nesting birds (Scott, in pressl ). The most frequently used snags were trees dead 6 or more years, more than 18 inches dbh, and with more than 40 percent bark cover. The height of the snag was not as important as the diameter, but snags more than 46 feet tall had more holes than did shorter ones. Balda (1975) recommended 2.7 snags per acre to maintain natural bird species diversity and maximum densities in the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona.
Important silvical characteristics in the development of nesting cavities include (1) tree size, longevity, and distribution; (2) regeneration by sprouts, and (3) decay in standing trees (Hansen 1966). Although trees less than 14 to 16 inches dbh at maturity are too small to yield cavities appropriate for wood ducks, they may be important for smaller species. Aspen, balsam fir, bitternut hickory, ironwood, and other trees fall within this range. Short-lived species such as aspen and balsam fir usually form cavities earlier than longer lived trees. Since a major avenue of fungal infection is sprouts, sprouting vigor and the age at which sprouts are produced are important considerations in managing for cavity-producing hardwood trees. Cavity formation in oaks of basal origin is a slow process, but black oak is a good cavity producer as trees approach maturity 'because although the heartwood decays rapidly the sapwood is resistant (Bellrose et al. 1964). Basswood is a good cavity producer because of its sprouting characteristics. Baumgartner (1939), Gysel (1961), Kilham (1971), Erskine and McLaren (1972), and others presented information on tree cavity formation for wildlife species. More information on the role of decay from branch scars, cutting, and animal damage is needed for different species of trees so that positive management for snags may be encouraged.
|Removal of snags is also known to reduce populations of some
birds. For example, removal of some live timber and snags in an Arizona
ponderosa pine forest reduced cavity-nesting bird populations by 50 percent
(Scott2). Violet-green swallows, pygmy nuthatches, and
northern three-toed woodpeckers accounted for much of the decline. A previously
high population of swallows dropped 90 percent, and a low woodpecker population
was eliminated. On an adjacent plot, where live trees were harvested but snags
were left standing, cavity-nesters increased as they did on a plot where live
trees and snags were undisturbed.
Foresters and recreation managers are now more aware of the esthetic and economic values of nongame wildlife, including cavity-nesting birds. In summer of 1977 the U.S. Forest Service established a national snag policy requiring all Regions and Forests to develop guidelines to "provide habitat needed to maintain viable, self-sustaining populations of cavity-nesting and snag-dependent wildlife species." These guidelines are also to include "retention of selected trees, snags, and other flora, to meet future habitat requirements" (USDA Forest Service 1977). Some Forest Service Regions had already established policies for snag management. For example, in 1976 the Arizona-New Mexico Region (USDA Forest Service 1976) recommended that three good quality snags be retained per acre within 500 feet of forest openings and water, with two per acre over the remaining forest. The policy also requires that provisions be made for continued recruitment of future snags; spike-topped trees with cavities and obvious cull trees should be left for future cavity nesters. Some foresters are now using tags to protect the more suitable snags from fuelwood cutters in high-use areas.
In this book, we have summarized both published data and personal observations on the cavity-nesting birds of North America in an attempt to provide land managers with an up-to-date, convenient source of information on the specific requirements of these birds. Bird nomenclature follows the American Ornithologists' Union Checklist of North American Birds (fifth edition, with supplements). Bird illustrations and distribution maps are reprinted with permission of Western Publishing Co. from A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America by Robbins et al. (1966). The small range maps indicate where birds are likely to be found during different seasons. Summer or breeding range is identified in red, winter range in blue; purple indicates areas where the species may be found all year. Red cross-hatching identifies areas where migrating birds are likely to be seen only in spring and fall. Length measurements (L) are for birds in their natural position, while W indicates wingspan.
Percentages of the diet under "Food" in species accounts refer to volume, unless otherwise indicated. Since nestlings of most species require insect protein, "Major Foods" refers largely to adult diets. Appendices list common names of plants and animals mentioned in the text, with scientific names when they could be determined.
1Scott, Virgil E. Characteristics of ponderosa pine snags used by cavity-nesting birds. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
2Scott, Virgil E. [In prep.] Bird response to snag removal. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
|Table 1 - Cavity-nesting birds : tree use and
|Black-bellied whistling duck||7||X||X||X|
|Black-backed three-toed woodpecker||51||X||X||X|
|Northern three-toed woodpecker||52||X||X||X|
|Wied's crested flycatcher||56||X||X||X|
|European tree sparrow||91||X||X||X|
|1 Snag or tree use: A: food B: nest C:
2 Major foods: 1: birds 2:rodents 3: reptiles and amphibians 4: insects
5: seeds and fleshy fruits 6: vegetation 7: other or little known.
3 Threatened or endangered species.
|Plants Referred to in Text|
|Invertebrates Referred to in Text|
|Vertebrates Referred to in Text|