Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ron Krupp, a gardener and author whose most recent book is “Lifting the Yoke — Local Solutions to America’s Farm and Food Crisis.” It first aired on VPR. He lives in South Burlington.
The Bird Friendly Maple Project is a partnership between local Audubon biologists, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, and the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association with support from the Proctor Maple Research Center and the Vermont Community Foundation.
Turns out there’s more to maple sugaring than boiling sap into sweet syrup — and it’s all about the birds. Each May, many maple sugarbushes ring with the songs of migratory birds such as the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, the Eastern wood pewee and black throated blue warbler.
Others support relatively low numbers of birds and bird species because they have fewer varieties of trees and shrubs. Park-like maple monocultures may appeal to our tidy aesthetic and increase sap production over the short-term, but birds bring benefits to a sugarbush, and they thrive best in environments with different nooks and crannies in which to hide, forage and raise their young.
According to Audubon Vermont Conservation biologist Steve Hagenbuch, the ideal mix in a sugarbush is at least 20 percent of tree species other than sugar maples.
From small seedlings on the forest floor, saplings and shrubs of the forest understory, and midstory to the canopy overhead, layers of vegetation provide forest birds with places to nest and forage. Birds also need both standing dead trees and live trees with cavities — the bigger the better — like the old logs favored by the ruffled grouse. And for the rest of use, I have to say that one of my favorite wake-up calls is the sound of a grouse announcing itself in the morning like an old tractor starting up.
According to Audubon Vermont Conservation biologist Steve Hagenbuch, the ideal mix in a sugarbush is at least 20 percent of tree species other than sugar maples. This reduces the frequency and intensity of sugar maple insect pests and disease. Plus the sugarbush is likely to have better long-term sap production and adapt more successfully to the stresses of climate change.
So the race is on to make our maple woods even more bird friendly. And a wildlife biologist will tell you a biologically diverse environment with a mix of sugar maples along with some hardwoods and softwoods provides a high quality of life for songbirds and other wildlife.
Maple syrup can indeed be produced from sugarbushes managed in dramatically different ways. But we’re learning that growing young understory trees below the older trees offers great places to nurture baby birds while ensuring a future for the forest.
So considering that what’s better for the birds is better for the trees, go ahead and pass the pancakes smothered in maple syrup, with a songbird serenade on the side.