Ghent, WV (WVNS) – A new study from West Virginia University is looking into ways to help declining songbird populations across portions of West Virginia, including Greenbrier, Fayette, and Nicholas Counties, and it may depend on local timber harvests.

Songbirds, including the golden-winged warbler, the cerulean warbler, and the wood thrush, are all native to West Virginia and have experienced significant population declines in the past few decades.

The golden-winged warbler, for example, has seen the Appalachian population decline by around 90% since the 1960s. This decline in the species is mainly due to habitat loss of breeding and wintering grounds.

Timber harvests, however, look to bring those lost grounds back by providing patches necessary for the birds to survive, according to WVU researchers in coordination with Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the largest sustainable forestry companies in North America.

“We’re trying to think about how these birds are responding to that,” lead author Chris Lituma, assistant professor of wildlife and forestry resources at Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design, said in an article from WVU. “We also want to know if there are ways in which Weyerhaeuser might be able to improve or modify their harvest that could potentially benefit something like a golden-winged warbler.”

In the first year of there study, the researchers gathered information through the use of bird surveys. The collected data will then help determine future land management practices.

“There’s an opportunity to influence where the golden-winged warblers go on the landscape,” Lituma said. “That, in my mind, is where the rubber meets the road—trying to utilize the data, to then focus management and build that sort of critical mass of habitat.”

One unique addition to the study is that smaller, private landlords can also take part in the study. They must however coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service.

“Part of the goal is to think about prioritizing other private landowners for these programs,” Lituma said. “If Weyerhaeuser could act as an anchor for these species, and you could build capacity around the property, then you might see a good response.” 

By the end, Lituma is hoping that that the study will provide ways for landowners to maintain their own land while also growing local bird populations across the state.

“We want to see these species populations reverse course and begin to jump up. And that, I think, is where a lot of us are right now in the bird world, thinking on these larger scales and trying to build that capacity.”