Bird songs hit right note for forest protection

Olive-sided Flycatcher

"Quick, three beers!" 

Although a cold one may be in order at the end of a long day in the field, this is not the call to head to the pub, but the call of an Olive-sided Flycatcher — at least it’s the mnemonic device that we ornithologists use to help remember its song. While I find it the most enticing of the mnemonics, it is certainly not the strangest. That distinction would go to the song of the Warbling Vireo, which we represent as “if I sees you I will seize you and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!”

These odd phrases are not just for fun; there is real utility in being able to identify birds by sound when they are hiding in the dense forest canopy — especially when you have 53 different songs to memorize. That is the number of bird species that we are monitoring in the Sierra National Forest as part of a study to determine the relationship between bird and mammal distribution and noise from cars, trucks, and off-road vehicles.

We are counting birds along transects and literally “tracking” carnivores (with the help of bright blue carpenter’s chalk, sticky contact paper, and attractive bait) at various distances from the nearest road. Recording devices planted throughout the forest (don’t worry, we can’t distinguish individual conversations!) give an indication of the frequency and amplitude of motor vehicle noise that the animals are experiencing. The research will provide valuable information to the Forest Service to help best manage the land for people and wildlife.

As I stand under the grand sugar pines and Douglas-firs in the wild lands of the Sierra Nevada listening to the high-pitched, buzzy songs of Hermit Warblers, I often think how lucky we are to have so much public land in California. While I will always appreciate the wild as a place to refresh my mind and body — a place to hike, swim, fish, and sleep out under the stars — I also appreciate our public lands for their scientific value. Without our National Forests we would have few areas that resemble Old California — the largely untouched wildlands that serve as comparisons against all of the land that we have developed.

Conservation biology often requires a baseline condition against which to compare the effects of human disturbance. National Forests provide this baseline. If we, however, mismanage our public forests and chip away at the edge of the wilderness, we threaten to lose the last vestiges of wildness that are essential for science, for wildlife, and for people.

The Forest Service is in the process of re-writing the rules that govern the management of all National Forests. These rules determine how forest management plans will be written and how forests will ultimately be managed on the ground — decisions such as where Wilderness Areas are recommended, which areas are open or close to off-road vehicles, where timber is cut, and where restoration activities will occur. If you think that forest planning regulations are wonky and bureaucratic, you’d be right, but if you think they don’t matter, just listen closely to the songs of the forest birds.

Photo: Olive-sided Flycatcher. Courtesy of National Park Service.