FAIRFIELD — Maple sugar makers across Vermont, including Branon Family Maple Orchards in Fairfield, are now integrating bird conservation practices into their forest management plans at the recommendation of Audubon Vermont, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect birds and their habitats.

By maintaining a certain level of tree diversity, understory and snags on the forest floor, research out of the University of Vermont shows that sugar makers can support bird populations and their habitats as well as enhance the health of their sugar bushes overall.

Audubon Vermont uses this research to guide landowners who opt into their program, the Bird-Friendly Maple Project, with implementing sugarbush management practices that support birds, forest health and sustainable sap production.

Audubon Vermont’s conservation biologist Steve Hagenbuch, who leads the project, said he starts off by walking the landowner’s sugarbush, assessing the forest for its level of tree species and size diversity, snags, live trees with cavities and woody material on the ground.

Bird populations in Vermont are declining generally because of loss of habitat, including a healthy forest floor which includes underbrush and snags.

These features provide places for more than 30 bird species, including wood thrushes, scarlet tanglers and eastern wood-pewees, to forage, hide and raise their young, according to the conservation organization.

Hagenbuch compares the inventory against the Bird-Friendly Sugar Bush Management Guidelines established collaboratively by Audubon Vermont, the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation and Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association.

“We look to see where the gaps are between what the current condition of the sugar bush is and the standards we’ve developed,” said Hagenbuch.

Those gaps are outlined in a report given to the landowner along with recommendations on how to close them, he said. Hagenbuch then asks the landowner to sign off on the report and by doing so, agree to incorporate the recommendations into their forest management plan within the year.

Since the project’s inception in 2014, close to 20 sugar makers have agreed, receiving a Bird-Friendly Maple Project insignia to label their projects with in return. The list includes Branon Family Maple Orchards in Fairfield and Hi Vue Maples in Richford.

Hagenbuch said not all of the maple producers on the list have sugar bushes that match the guidelines perfectly. “[But] we realize that forest management activities happen over a long period of time and the forest habitat elements that we’re looking for kind of take time to develop if they’re not already there,” he said.

“So rather than wait 10 to 15 years for somebody to actually have the perfect bird friendly sugar bush,” he continued, “we wanted to make it where we’re recognizing them essentially for managing today for things tomorrow.”

Hagenbuch performed the assessment on Branon Family Maple Orchards last fall, according to Cecile Branon.

She said they added his recommendations to their forest management plan, but hadn’t done much beyond that, due to the workload of the past maple sugaring season.

Branon said for the most part, Hagenbuch said the woods were in “great shape” and there were only a couple of areas that needed tending to. “Steve kind of just congratulated us and said we’re doing a good job,” she said. “We leave debris on the ground for the animals. When a tree falls, we cut it to get it off our lines or out of roads, but we let it rot and that rot is good for wildlife, for birds.”

She said the report was helpful because it proved they were on the right track with their forest management plan and “good stewards to the earth.”

Since then, a few customers have commented on the Bird-Friendly Maple Project label on their website, according to Branon. “It proves to us that a good healthy sugar bush is important,” she said, “and it’s [also] important for the trees and for the birds.”

One of the Bird-Friendly Maple Project’s overall recommendations for sugar makers is to maintain a tree diversity of 25 percent non-maple trees within their forests. This standard not only helps support bird populations, but also makes the sugar bush more adaptable and resilient to climate change, infect infestation and disease, according to Hagenbuch.

He said last year, some of the sugar bushes in Lamoille County experienced infestations of Eastern Tent Caterpillar. “You could identify the sugar bushes that were [primarily] maple because they were being extremely defoliated by this insect,” said Hagenbuch. “If you have a greater diversity of trees out there, you actually have a little bit of a buffer.”

He added that many of the strategies issued by the U.S. Forest Service and Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science for forest resiliency and adaptation in the face of climate change were “right in line” with Audubon Vermont’s recommendations for making a sugar bush a better bird habitat.

“It’s pretty much an exact parallel when thinking about overall forest health and when thinking about having a greater diversity of bird species,” said Hagenbuch.

“One of things that I know a lot of towns are struggling with right now in our region is looking at some of the larger more industrial sugar makers coming into the region and buying up land and basically taking out the understory and managing just for maple,” said Bridget Butler, bird enthusiast and owner of Bird Diva Consulting, Inc.

“I think especially in Franklin County,” Butler continued, “one of the things we can try and pay attention to is how do we make our sugar bushes better for wildlife, better in the face of climate change.”

She said the Bird-Friendly Maple Project is great in that it gets people “to think about how a sugar maple monoculture might be good in the short term,” but really decreases the diversity of tree species with can allow for invasive insects and plants to enter deeper into the forest.

Hagenbuch said more and more sugar makers are getting involved with the project each year. He said the program runs at no cost to the landowners, thanks to contributions from Vermont Community Foundation, Canaday Family Charitable Trust and Frank & Brinna Sands Foundation.

To learn more, visit http://vt.audubon.org/conservation/working-lands/landing/bird-friendly-maple-project.