Bird-Friendly Paper?

International Paper makes habitat a priority.

Most people would not expect their paper goods purchasing decisions to have an impact on songbird habitat, but thanks to an innovative partnership between Audubon and International Paper, it can.

Paper is a forest product and the raw material, pulpwood, can be derived from forests that are managed in many different ways. Pulpwood is the low quality material (trees) in the forest - those with disease, poor form, or defects - that prevent their use as lumber. The economic value of pulpwood can be dramatically lower than high quality sawlogs. When a forest has a higher proportion of pulpwood to sawlogs, particularly on smaller properties, it can be difficult to find a logger interested in doing forestry work on that property. As a result, forest management activities that have the potential to enhance habitat conditions for birds and other wildlife go left undone. This cascading effect is amplified in a digital world where the demand for paper is decreasing. Even COVID-19 has had negative impacts on the paper industry.

Fortunately, thanks to a new partnership the narrative around the challenges of the pulpwood market is being rewritten. This partnership is between International Paper’s (IP) Ticonderoga, NY mill and the Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers program (a collaborative effort of Audubon Vermont, Audubon New York, the Vermont Tree Farm Committee, the New York Tree Farm Committee, Vermont Woodlands Association, the New York Forest Owners Association, and the American Forest Foundation). 

Through this pilot program, IP is preferentially purchasing trees harvested from forests managed with birds in mind. This is a benefit to the landowner, as there is a guaranteed market for their wood. To be eligible a landowner must have an up to date forest management plan that has formally incorporated bird-friendly management recommendations provided by Audubon staff or a forester trained by Audubon. One of this year’s projects is currently underway at the Vermont Land Trust’s (VLT) Hill-Robert property in Starksboro, VT.

On a bluebird afternoon in mid-January, I had the opportunity to join VLT forester Caitlin Cusack on a tour of the harvest. The visit was somewhat of a milestone in a process that started in 2015 when I completed an Audubon forest bird habitat assessment for the 72 acre parcel. The management recommendations included in that assessment were incorporated into a forest management plan update prepared by Caitlin in 2018, with a harvest now occurring here in the winter of 2020-2021. In addition, Caitlin has been conducting breeding season bird surveys on the property since 2016. These surveys will continue in the years ahead and will help evaluate the effectiveness of the management activities in meeting bird habitat objectives.

One of the first things that caught my attention as we entered to forest was the abundance of down woody material, or logs and branches on the ground. In a harvest there will typically be some wood that is left behind. Many times the “tops”, or branches, are cut to a pre-determined height. This action does not serve any real ecological value but rather an aesthetic one. In fact it can be preferable to leave the tops as they are and this is exactly what served as an initial indicator that this harvest was following the management recommendations of the bird habitat assessment. Not only can the piles of down woody material provide excellent cover for birds, they also help protect young tree growth from being eaten by white-tailed deer, which are abundant in these woods.

A short while later we arrived at an area where the majority of the overstory trees were harvested in an approximately ¾ acre area. In forestry terms this is a "group selection" and the intent is to provide for the right conditions to regenerate a new cohort of trees – the next forest, if you will. The establishment of seedlings and saplings over the next 5+ years will provide excellent habitat structure for a breeding pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers to place a nest in. This understory vegetation was lacking pre-harvest, which makes this forest management activity the right one at the right time.

Caitlin also pointed out a few other aspects of this area that held particular relevance to her thinking about bird habitat. This first was a standing dead tree, or snag, that was intentionally retained in the harvest as a potential nest site for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The other, as mentioned above, was the abundance of down woody material, which will serve White-throated Sparrows as a place to forage for insects. Speaking of insects, this ¾ acre gap in the otherwise closed forest canopy, will be the perfect place for Eastern Wood-Pewees to forage for flying insects come July.

As our tour continued it remained obvious that Caitlin had bird habitat as one of the main objectives as she marked the trees to be harvested and the directions she provided to Kyle Pratt, the logger doing the work. It was exciting to hear her share her thoughts on managing for forest birds on the parcel:

I've come to cherish the two June mornings a year I sit in the woods at Hill Robert to listen to the dawn chorus and record what species of breeding songbirds I’m hearing. This has deepened my relationship with this place and has helped me to fully appreciate how important managing with birds in mind is. It's so cool to think that perhaps some of the individuals I hear singing may return year after year following a long migration, in the case of the Blackburnian (warbler), as far away as South America!

I would say the forestry for the birds training I received and your coaching has widened and deepened the lens with which I view the forest.  I look at fine woody material and vertical structure in particular a lot differently. I asked the loggers not to lop the tops to their usual 3-4' in order to not only protect regeneration from deer but also to provide immediate nesting sites and foraging habitat and cover for Veery, Black-throated Blue, Wood Thrush and Ovenbirds I’ve heard singing. As the tops decompose the shrubs and trees that establish from the increased sunlight will fill the role that the tops were providing. When I created openings larger than ¼ of an acre I tried to retain any snags and a couple of live trees such as yellow birch and aspen, in part for their value to birds.

As we made our way out to the log landing we had a chance to meet up with Kyle. He pointed out the pile of high quality sawlogs as well as the lower quality stems that were to be picked up later that day and trucked to IP’s Ticonderoga Mill – bringing the project full circle. The Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers partnership with International Paper is one example of how market-based approaches are critical to the long-term success of bird and forest conservation.

To learn more about Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers and the partnership with International Paper please contact Audubon Vermont’s Steve Hagenbuch at or visit

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