Western Maine Habitat Restoration, Wildlife

Hold the Curtain: The Show-stopping Canada Warbler Needs Help From Family Woodland Owners

Jul. 16, 2020
New England Forestry Foundation Male Canada Warbler perched on his breeding territory in Maine. The poster child for habitat loss in the northeast, Canada Warblers nest on the ground in damp mixed hardwoods/spruce/fir forests. Data show they lose up to 7 percent of their habitat in the Northeast annually. Photo: Ken James/Maine Audubon

New England Forestry Foundation’s wildlife habitat restoration project focuses on Western Maine

Writing by Christine Parrish, Western Maine Mountains Project Coordinator for New England Forestry Foundation

Photo by Ken James, courtesy of Maine Audubon. The image above shows a male Canada Warbler perched on his breeding territory in Maine’s forest.

The male Canada Warbler arrives in Maine looking like he blew in from a Broadway musical. With his neon-yellow chest decorated with a bold black necklace topped off with a pair of yellow-and-white spectacles and orange legs, this woodland songster is one of the easiest of the warblers to identify—if he would only hold still.

Flitting from one low branch to another, looking under leaves to snap up spiders and small insects in the shady wet woods, the busy Canada Warbler is doing triple duty. While he eats, he is also defending a nesting territory while advertising for a mate. He is as flashy as an opera singer when he stops on a branch about 10 feet off the ground, flicks his tail and belts out his sweet warbling song to alert the less-showy females that he’s available and to advertise to all male Canada Warblers that he will defend this half-acre to three acres of buggy forest floor. Then he ducks back under the leaves and continues his feeding frenzy.

In Maine, Canada Warblers won’t be found in the treetops, at the bird feeder, or in the open woods. They will be low in the woods among a damp tangle of downed trees, ferns, and moss beneath the shade of taller trees.

As the male stands guard from the branches, the female Canada Warbler chooses a hidden spot in the moss, or on a mossy stump, or a tipped-over tree and spends up to 5 days weaving together strips of bark, leaves, moss, and grasses to form a loose cup of a nest right on the ground. After lining it with fine grasses, animal hair, or fine rootlets, she lays 2-6 creamy eggs with small brown spots or blotches and then settles in to sit on the nest for up to 12 days.

Once the eggs hatch, the nestlings will stay another week in the nest while both parents bring them food. If disturbed, the female will drag a wing and try to lure the predator away from the nest with the broken wing trick.

One of the last woodland songbirds to arrive in the cool northern hardwood and northern mixed wood forests of Maine and Canada during late spring, Canada Warblers stay on the breeding grounds for a brief two months to raise a family. If they are late to arrive, they are also early to leave, traveling by night to fly the return trip of 3,000 miles to the lower slopes of the South American Andes by early August and spending fall, winter, and spring with most of the world’s population of Canada Warblers in the dense understory of cloud forests and shade-grown coffee plantations.

The Canada Warbler uses the forest floor to nest, trees up to 30 feet tall to feed and sing, and requires shade from the canopy above to successfully raise young. Credit: Forestry For Maine Birds, Maine Audubon.

But life is not just The Sound of Music stage for the Canada warbler. They are trying to out-fly a threat that pursues them year after year.

Over time, this woodland songster has developed a specialized requirement for nesting and raising young. Not only do the small understory trees in Maine provide good perches for the male to show off during courtship, but the wet woods also provide a good source of protein-rich insects necessary to raise young. The tangle of vegetation from the ground to about six feet up offers a good mix of hiding places where Canada Warblers can forage for food and tuck a nest and the nestlings out of sight.

Technical and financial assistance is available to Western Maine woodland owners with more than 10 acres to use forestry to create homes for songbirds, native trout, and wildlife

Here is the right stage set: tall trees that block out from 50 to 70 percent of the sun, a shorter tree layer below that blocks out another 30 percent of the sun, and a mossy forest floor with blow-downs and downed logs, ferns, and shrub-sized trees.

That combination of breeding and nesting habitat is increasingly hard to find in northern forests. Today, the once-common Canada Warbler has become a poster child for global habitat loss. They have declined over 60 percent in the past 50 years and are now listed on the Yellow Watch List by Partners in Flight as a bird species of continent-wide concern. At this rate of habitat loss, the remaining global population of Canada Warblers is expected to decline by half again over the next 50 years.

One solution to stopping the decline is to use forestry as a wildlife habitat tool to create Canada Warbler habitat so they can make more baby birds.

Over the next two years, the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) is working with woodland owners in Western Maine who have more than 10 acres to help them improve nesting bird habitat, woodland vernal pool habitat, create habitat for furbearers like the American Marten and Canada Lynx, and improve conditions for wide-ranging animals including moose, wintering deer, wild trout and more wildlife that need room to roam and clean water to thrive. Creating habitat for one creates homes for many.

If the property is a good fit for the project, the NEFF Western Maine staff will work with the landowner to create a Fish and Wildlife Habitat Restoration Plan at no cost. Then NEFF will assist the landowner in establishing eligibility for Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) funding through the Healthy Forest Reserve Program to offset the cost of recommended forest practices. Additional financial assistance is available on qualifying properties through the NEFF partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

For more information on NEFF’s Western Maine Habitat Restoration project, visit the project web page and contact the Western Maine Project Coordinator at the Farmington Maine office of the New England Forestry Foundation at cparrish@newenglandforestry.org or at 207-203-9006.