Over the river and through the woods: Multi-scale habitat associations of two at-risk bird species in riparian forests of the Central Appalachians

Jeffery T. Larkin, Cameron J. Fiss, Halie A. Parker, Michael C. Tyree, Joseph Duchamp, Jeffery L. Larkin, Darin J. McNeil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Several species-specific habitat management guidelines have been created over the past decade to help recover declining populations of forest birds in eastern North America. Conserving eastern forest birds through forest management requires understanding the factors driving species occurrence patterns and how the needs of various species complement or contrast with each other. Our study assessed and compared occupancy patterns of two at-risk species associated with riparian forests: the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and the Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis). We conducted point-count surveys and vegetation sampling at 304 unique locations along 33 stream sections in central and southwestern Pennsylvania from May – June 2018 and 2019. We used single-season occupancy models to examine the influence of vegetation composition (i.e., microhabitat conditions), forest structure (i.e., from Light Detection and Ranging data, “LiDAR”), and other factors (i.e., stream order and elevation) on focal species occurrence patterns. Wood Thrush occupancy (mean ᴪˆ: 0.57) was best explained by the presence of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia; negative effect), elevation (negative effect), canopy height (positive effect), and canopy structural heterogeneity (positive effect). Canada Warbler occupancy (mean ᴪˆ: 0.55) was best explained by the presence of mountain laurel (positive effect), stream order (positive effect), elevation (positive effect), density of understory vegetation (positive effect), and canopy structural heterogeneity (negative effect). While both bird species occurred relatively frequently in riparian forests, our results indicate that habitat factors at multiple spatial scales play a role in regulating their occurrence patterns. Moreover, the two species exhibited contrasting habitat associations. Specifically, Canada Warblers preferred sites supporting dense mountain laurel, typically at elevations >600 m, and with a largely intact canopy. These patterns were reversed for Wood Thrushes. These contrasting associations will limit opportunities to manage riparian forests in a manner that conveys co-benefits for our two focal species. As a general rule, forest managers in our study region can target habitat management for Canada Warblers in riparian areas above 600 m and in areas below 600 m for Wood Thrushes. Given our focal species’ use of other (non-riparian) forest types as breeding habitat and broad geographic distributions, it is important to recognize that our findings may not apply outside of riparian forests or beyond the Central Appalachian Mountains.

Original languageEnglish
Article number121997
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Jul 15 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 Elsevier B.V.


  • Canada Warbler
  • Forest Management
  • LiDAR
  • Pennsylvania
  • Riparian Management
  • Wood thrush

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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