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Steve Hagenbuch, a conservation biologist with Audubon Vermont’s Forest Bird Initiative, speaks to maple sugarmakers at their annual conference in Brattleboro on Jan. 18.

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Birds of a feather

A collaboration between Audubon Vermont and maple sugar makers offers sweet benefits for global bird conservation, sugarbushes, and the environment

BRATTLEBORO—Maple syrup and songbirds have something in common: They rely on healthy forests.

A pilot program is helping farmers who harvest sap from the maple trees create and maintain these “bird-friendly” habitats.

The Bird-Friendly Maple Project operates through Audubon Vermont and is a collaboration among that organization, the state Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, and the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association (VMSMA).

“Without the forested landscape that we have out there so prominently in northern New England, we really wouldn’t have a maple industry and we wouldn’t have the bird communities that we have out there today,” said Audubon Vermont Conservation Biologist Steve Hagenbuch.

Hagenbuch presented the program to sugarmakers from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts at the 2020 Maple Conference in Brattleboro on Jan. 18, is one of two presented this year. They are sponsored by the VMSMA and UVM Extension.

He said that he assumed most sugar makers already manage their forests in ways that are bird-friendly, but the Bird-Friendly Maple Project gives sugar makers a new edge in marketing their product: a way to communicate those efforts and their benefits to consumers, he added.

‘Species richness’

Most sugar makers include forest management in their syrup-making toolbox.

The aroma, taste, and mouthfeel of maple syrup result from a combination of factors at play inside and outside the sugarhouse. Environmental conditions, tree health, and the time of the season all affect the sap running into the sugarhouse — and thus the syrup.

Hagenbuch drew the connection between maple syrup and songbirds.

According to federal data, last year Vermont produced more than 2 million gallons of maple syrup, or more than 50 percent of the U.S. production.

This is more syrup than any other state, he said.

“Most people know that,” Hagenbuch said. “But fewer know that we’re also home to some of the greatest number of bird species during the breeding season, more anywhere else in the country as well. We call this ‘species richness.’”

According to Hagenbuch, maple sugarbushes provide nesting habitat for a variety of songbirds, like the Scarlet Tanager, the Wood Thrush, the Black-throated Blue Warbler, and the Eastern Wood-Pewee.

Many songbirds winter in the tropics but fly to forests in the Northeast in the summer to mate and breed, he said.

The importance of forests in Northeastern states like Vermont is global, he said.

That’s right. Global.

“We can see that there’s a really close parallel between where we find that high richness of bird species and [which states] most of the syrup in the U.S. is produced,” Hagenbuch said.

According to program materials, “some of these bird species have more than 50 percent of their global breeding population in the Northeastern forest.” Some of songbird species have experienced population declines “for over 40 years.”

“So this is all to say that there is a very close tie-in between the maple syrup industry and global bird conservation,” he said.

Hagenbuch explained that the Bird-Friendly Maple Project will foster win-win-win scenarios for sugar makers, birds, and consumers (whether they just love maple or want to support songbirds) by supporting the efforts of sugarmakers to care for their sugarbushes and birds at the same time.

The program launched in 2014 and is funding in part by the Vermont Community Foundation, Canaday Family Charitable Trust, and the Frank and Brinna Sands Foundation, Inc.

“Any sugarbush is inherently good for birds because they keep forests as forests, and of all the threats that face birds and forest biodiversity, what’s the number-one threat? The loss of that forest to some other use,” he said.

So even maple producers who don’t participate in the Audubon Vermont program are helping the environment. What the Bird-Friendly Maple Project does, however, is communicate a sugar maker’s intent to create habitats where birds thrive.

According to Hagenbuch, management of a bird-friendly sugarbush includes environmental features that support birds in their nesting, hiding from predators, foraging for food (mostly insects), and raising the next generation.

Such a sugarbush would include:

• A diversity of tree species in addition to sugar maples.

• Layers of vegetation. Not all species like to nest or forage in the same layer of the forest. Some prefer to dig for insects in the ground, while others like to feed high in the trees.

• Standing dead trees: the favorite place of some species like woodpeckers to find food.

• Logs and branches on the forest floor. Such debris can provide foraging, hiding, and nesting areas. But it can also provide protection for seedlings — new forests in the making — from other animals, like deer.

Planning for the birds

Sugar makers can participate in the program for free, Hagenbuch said.

To become part of the recognition program includes developing a forest management plan — or updating a current management plan — that takes birds’ needs into consideration.

Hagenbuch then reviews the plan and visits the sugar maker’s property. He then writes up a list of recommendations — a to-do list of sorts — that he and the sugar maker sign in good faith.

Since so many birds return to the Northeast to breed, Hagenbuch will look for conditions in the forest that support successful breeding and support the health of fledglings.

He explained that for bird populations to survive, the birds need to be able to lay eggs and raise healthy young. These fledglings then leave the nest and live to raise the next generation.

In return for participating in the program, sugarmakers receive marketing materials — for example, stickers for their bottles that mark the syrup as “bird-friendly.” Audubon Vermont will also highlight participating sugar makers on the organization’s website, which features 17 sugar makers highlighted on the state map.

Most of these sugarhouses are located in northern Vermont. One southern Vermont farm has gone through the process: the Mance Family Tree Farm in Shaftsbury.

Hagenbuch said more than 50 producers overall are enrolled in the program.

In addition to having a forest management plan to belong to the program, sugar makers must agree to not harvest trees during the nesting season, May to mid-July.

Also, the sugarbush must be part of a contiguous forest block of 100 acres or more.

The sugar maker does not need to own or manage all 100 acres; the sugarbush must be part of a large block of interior forest.

Hagenbuch explained that many of the bird species the Bird-Friendly Maple Project hopes to support prefer to nest inside forests rather than on the fringes (near a field, for example).

Finally, he said, the program wants to work with the natural systems already in place on a piece of property, like a wetland. The program does not want to stimulate the creation of sugarbushes on land not suitable for them.

Hagenbuch said the program’s requirements are designed not to conflict with other state or federal land management programs.

Forests can benefit more generally from sugarmakers’ attempts to support birds, Hagenbuch added.

“Sugarbushes are inherently good for forests because they keep forests, forests,” he said. “Loss of forests are the greatest threat to birds.”

Sugarbushes located within forests filled with diverse species also tend to be more resilient to climate change. These forests also tend to weather disease and insect outbreaks, he said.

Audubon New York is now piloting a similar program. MassAudubon — which is not part of the national organization — is in discussion with the state producer association in Massachusetts, but has yet to launch a program. New Hampshire has yet to reach out to Hagenbuch.

As a parting message, Hagenbuch asked audience members how many used maple syrup in their coffee. Many enthusiastically raised their hands.

A sister to bird-friendly maple syrup is bird-friendly coffee, he said.

“This Scarlet Tanager, and many of the others, when they’re in their wintering grounds, they’re in forests that support coffee shrubs,” he said.

Hagenbuch explained that shade-grown coffee better supports the environmental conditions friendly to birds.

“The economics of coffee and maple are a whole other story,” he said.

A greener maple industry?

VMSMA Executive Director Allison Hope is one month into her tenure. In her short time in the leadership role, she has heard sugarmakers discuss climate change resiliency and energy efficiency.

The organization is currently working to develop a sap-line-recycling program.

Sap lines, often referred to as “laterals,” is the plastic tubing that has mostly replaced the iconic sap bucket as a tool for maple sap collection.

Sugar makers replace their tubing approximately every two years, she said.

Some solid waste districts in Vermont will recycle plastic sap lines; others — like the Windham Solid Waste Management District — will not.

According the website for the Northwest Vermont Solid Waste Management District in Georgia, the NVSWMD will take old sap plastic sap lines for a fee ($5 per cubic yard for clean tubing; $20 per cubic yard for tubing with taps, tees, fittings, etc.)

Hope said members of the VMSMA want to keep that plastic out of the waste stream. The organization is speaking with a few companies that recycle agricultural plastics in Quebec to develop a recycling program tailored to the needs of Vermont sugarmakers.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #546 (Wednesday, January 29, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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