Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Provide Sweet News for Threatened Birds

The summer mating season is looking to get a lot easier for the scarlet tanager, one of a number of migratory songbirds that use the forests of northeastern North America to find a mate.

In recent decades, the loss and degradation of bird habitats has led to a precipitous decline in bird populations. Now, a $2 million grant awarded to the National Audubon Society’s Bird-Friendly Maple program, in partnership with VA Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment Associate Professor Ashley Dayer, will look to improve bird habitats by encouraging maple syrup producers to incorporate forest management practices that allow other trees and bushes to grow amid the sugar maples that are responsible for our sticky breakfast topping.

“The future of maple-dominated forests, birds, and other biodiversity and their ability to be resilient and adaptable to a changing climate relies on how private lands are managed,” said Dayer, who researches the interplay between wildlife conservation and human societies in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “We aim to understand how to empower small forest landowners to get involved and ensure that benefiting birds benefits their bottom line too.”

The project is funded through a new program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service that supports emerging markets to foster forest resilience. Participating maple syrup producers will commit to dedicating at least one-fourth of their land to the growing of alternative tree species and also will allow for diverse growth of understory and mid-story plants and shrubs, critical resources for bird species that call the forests of North America home.

Maple producers who participate in this technique will be able to label their maple products “bird-friendly,” a designation that researchers hope will lead to market benefits for owners of the sugar shacks that are currently producing our favorite pancake topping.

“Virginia Tech will play a key role in the project, evaluating landowner needs and addressing barriers to increased engagement,” said Dayer, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Global Change Center, and the Center for Coastal Studies. “We will also develop and implement message testing with potential consumers of bird-friendly maple syrup to explore how to grow interest in this product.”

Associate Professor Ashely Dayer (at right) researches the interplay between wildlife conservation and human societies in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Photo by Sam Dean for Virginia Tech.

For Dayer, this research aligns with previous work she has done in helping to develop certification for bird-friendly coffee, which encourages tropical farmers to grow and harvest coffee under the canopies of mature trees, a critical need for both tropical and migratory bird species.

Dayer said that getting buy-in from the forest landowners producing coffee or maple syrup is critical for conservation efforts like this initiative.

“As we’ve learned from other contexts, listening to landowners is the foundation of a successful private lands conservation project,” said Dayer. “Developing projects with them ensures that our work will have lasting benefits for people, habitats, and birds.”

By David Fleming

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