Birds love Vermont maple syrup!

Blue Jay by Phyllis Burchett/Audubon Photography Awards
Blue Jay by Phyllis Burchett/Audubon Photography Awards

Steve Hagenbuch, Audubon Vermont conservation biologist

If there was one word to describe this winter, unpredictable would be a good choice. Although Vermont can’t seem to buy a good ol’ fashion snowstorm and the temperatures are all over the map, one thing we can be assured of is another excellent crop of the world’s best maple syrup.

For some maple producers, the 2016 season has already begun and others will be starting soon. At the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington, approximately 500 maple trees will be tapped during the first week of March. Here, traditional sugaring methods take precedent over technology. Buckets are still used for collecting the sap that is then boiled down to syrup in a wood-fired evaporator.

In celebration of the season, the center hosts field trips for local schools and participates in the Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, this year being held April 2 and 3. Visitors to the Green Mountain Audubon Center’s sugar on snow parties will find sugar on snow (of course!) complete with a pickle and donut, tours of the sugarbush, a first-hand look at the syrup making process in the sugarhouse, and the opportunity to purchase maple syrup made on site. Perhaps the jug will still be warm with just-made syrup.

One thing that may be noticed on the syrup containers is a small, circular sticker with an artistic rendition of a scarlet tanager and the words “Produced in Bird-Friendly Habitats.” What is this all about?

If you are a coffee drinker you may have heard of the bird-friendly variety grown in the forests of Mexico and Central and South America. This endeavor has proven successful in meshing the economic needs of coffee producers with healthy and resilient natural ecosystems that provide habitats for nesting and wintering bird species. Can Vermont fit into the bird-friendly product realm? Audubon Vermont, along with its partners, believes our state’s signature product, maple syrup, is the answer.

Each May, many maple sugarbushes burst forth with a symphony of song produced by migratory bird species such as wood thrush, scarlet tanager and black-throated blue warbler. Sugarbushes are inherently good for birds as they keep forest as forest and not converted to other uses.

Sugarbushes that are intentionally managed with birds in mind are even better for birds. As with any forest, the management of a sugarbush influences its vegetative structure and composition, and ultimately the quality of habitat for songbirds and other wildlife. Sugar maple monocultures may result in a short-term gain for maple producers but in the long term can have negative implications for sugarbush health and sustainability. A diversity of tree species, with at least 20 to 25 percent of the sugarbush made up of species other than sugar maple is likely to reduce the frequency and intensity of sugar maple insect pests and disease. Not likely a coincidence, this same threshold has been shown to provide for a more diverse bird community and greater overall abundance of birds.

Additionally, forest management that promotes regeneration of young trees will help ensure a continual supply of sap-producing trees and a more sustainable sugarbush in the long run. These same seedlings and saplings constitute the understory and midstory forest layers that the majority of forest birds nest and forage in. There are a number of other aspects of a sugarbush supportive of birds that management can help to develop or maintain.

To promote the win/win situation that can exist for maple producers and bird conservation in a well-managed sugarbush, Audubon Vermont, along with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Association recently initiated the Bird-Friendly Maple Project.

The goals of the project, which has received funding from the Vermont Community Foundation, Canaday Family Charitable Trust, Frank and Brinna Sands Foundation and the Lintilhac Foundation, are to engage maple producers in bird-friendly sugarbush management, improve habitat for priority birds, and create a meaningful way to recognize maple producers who practice sustainable sugarbush management.

The next time you purchase pure Vermont maple syrup, look for the bird-friendly label. In doing so you’ll be supporting sugarmakers who have taken extra steps to consider birds during the management of their forest. Come this summer, if you listen extra carefully, you may just hear birds singing, “We love Vermont maple syrup!”

For more information on Audubon’s Sugar on Snow parties or the Bird-Friendly Maple Project call (802) 434-3068, email vermont@audubon.org, or visit vt.audubon.org.