DEEP: Young Forest and Shrubland Initiative

Connecticut’s Young Forest and Shrubland Initiative

{Shrubland} Young forests and shrublands, also referred to as early successional habitats, provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species. In the past, early successional habitat was created and maintained through natural disturbances such as fire, flooding, beaver activity, and blow downs from wind. It also was created and maintained through human disturbances such as agricultural and timber harvesting. Historically, early successional habitat in New England would have been most common in southern New England. Today, Connecticut has become very developed and opportunities for natural disturbance have been controlled. Fire and flooding is controlled, agriculture is declining, and clear-cut timber harvesting has decreased in size and frequency throughout the state as well. Early successional habitat is found in Connecticut today primarily along utility right-of-ways, in wildlife management areas owned by the state or other private organizations, and in forests where timber harvest has been conducted. 

Because the amount of early successional habitat is declining in Connecticut, so are the wildlife species that depend on these habitats. Connecticut's Wildlife Action Plan has identified 47 wildlife species of Greatest Conservation Need (GCN) as being associated with these habitats and in need of active management. These species include the American woodcock, eastern towhee, New England cottontail, prairie warbler, brown thrasher, and field sparrow. The Wildlife Division in cooperation with other partners has initiated the Young Forest and Shrubland Initiative to help restore these important habitats. Projects associated with this initiative include: 1) New England cottontail restoration, 2) upland shrubland bird monitoring, and 3) American woodcock habitat use and survival.

Additional Information:
Benefits of Clearcuts Brochure (pdf)

New England Cottontail Restoration

{New England cottontail} Two species of cottontail rabbits are found in Connecticut: New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Of these two species, only the New England cottontail is truly native to Connecticut. Eastern cottontails were introduced to bolster cottontail populations in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

{New England cottontail range maps} Once abundant throughout most of New England and eastern New York, the New England cottontail now faces the possibility of being a federally listed, threatened or endangered species. Many factors have contributed to the 85% decrease in the historic range of the New England cottontail, most notably habitat loss and the introduction of the eastern cottontail. The New England cottontail relies on a mosaic of young forests and shrublands for its survival, while, its competitor, the eastern cottontail is more adaptable to a wider variety of habitat types.

New England cottontails do not venture far from the heavy cover typically found in beaver flowages, railroad rights-of-ways, power-line corridors, abandoned farms, and regenerating forests. These thick, shrubby habitats, known as a “thickets,” provides an area for New England cottontails to reproduce, feed, and find cover from weather and predators. Ideally, these thickets should be between 10-25 acres in size and within close proximity to other similar thickets. 

The most influential factor in the decline of the New England cottontail throughout its range is the loss of suitable young forest/shrubland habitat. This loss is attributed to residential and commercial development, fragmentation, and natural plant succession. New England and eastern cottontail rabbits continue to be regulated game species in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Hunting of New England cottontails is permitted because hunting pressure is low relative to the overall abundance of cottontails, and is believed to be insignificant compared to other mortality factors. Research conducted in Connecticut showed that predation was the most significant cause of mortality and that regulated hunting had only minimal effects. Major predators such as raptors, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and weasels were responsible for over 65% of all known mortality.

What We Are Doing

As part of a regional initiative, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations are collaborating on habitat projects, species and habitat monitoring and assessment, targeted landowner outreach, and captive breeding programs to keep the New England cottontail from becoming a federally-listed species. DEEP has identified 12 focus areas throughout the state where New England cottontail populations have been documented.

{Map of New England Cottontail Restoration Focus Areas.}

Cooperative efforts between the CT DEEP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Wildlife Management Institute, other state wildlife agencies, and non-governmental organizations have resulted in three separate grants which provide funds for habitat restoration, outreach/education, and monitoring and assessment.

New England Cottontail Restoration Grants
Grant No. Source of Grant Amount Purpose
1 State Wildlife Grants $185,000 Restore a minimum of 150 acres of habitat on state lands.
2 State Wildlife Grants $165,000 Restore a minimum of 150 acres of habitat on state lands.
3 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation $200,000 Conduct outreach, assess habitat, and develop management plans for private lands which enable landowners to fund habitat improvement through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Farm Bill programs.

State Lands Habitat Management: Efforts are currently underway to create and maintain habitat for New England cottontails on state lands within each of these focus areas. Sites being restored were selected based on a regional screening process and known locations of New England cottontail populations. A variety of techniques are being used to restore habitat, including standard forestry/logging operations, mowing and mulching operations with “brontosaurus” or “fecon” equipment, prescribed burns, plantings, and non-native invasive plant control. These activities are conducted following all Forestry Division and New England cottontail established Best Management Practices. By creating and maintaining this habitat, additional species of greatest conservation need (47 in Connecticut and 70 throughout New England) will also benefit. At one of the sites, Roraback Wildlife Management Area, a demonstration trail was created to highlight management techniques and habitat features important to wildlife (Demonstration Trail Guide PDF).

Habitat Management Techniques
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New England Cottontail State Land Habitat Management Projects
Focus Area Property Town Acres Completion Date Grant No.
Goshen Uplands Roraback WMA Harwinton 51.21 2/2/11 1
Goshen Uplands Camp Columbia SF Morris 4.00 3/10/11 1
Goshen Uplands Goshen WMA Goshen 13.00 3/1/11 1
Goshen Uplands Goshen WMA Goshen 57.00 3/2/13 1
Goshen Uplands Roraback WMA Harwinton 26.00 Est. 8/13 2
Goshen Uplands Camp Columbia SF Morris 20.8 Ongoing 2
Goshen Uplands Sessions Woods WMA Burlington 35.00 3/25/13 2
Middle Housatonic Housatonic River WMA Kent 57.97 4/2/11 1
Scotland-Caterbury Spignesi WMA Scotland 41.00 Est. 2013 2
Lebanon Bartlett Brook WMA Colchester 21.80 Est. 2013 2
Lebanon Bear Hill WMA Bozrah 41.00 Ongoing 2
Lebanon Pease Brook WMA Lebanon 22.00 Est. 2013 2
Pachaug Pachaug SF Voluntown 250.00 Est. 2013 2
Wildlife Management Area (WMA )           State Forest (SF)

Private Lands Habitat Management: Realizing that 90% of Connecticut’s lands are in private ownership, the long-term success of the restoration initiative relies on developing partnerships with private landowners. Through the Natural Resources Conservations Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program, the Wildlife Division and the NRCS are actively collaborating to locate interested landowners within the designated focus areas to develop site specific management plans. To date, eighteen management plans that will enhance approximately 400 acres of New England cottontail habitat have been developed. The Division is actively working with several additional landowners to assess parcels and develop management plans.

Interested landowners can find more information on the Connecticut NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife website or contact the NRCS through your local field office.

You may also contact the Connecticut Wildlife Division's Habitat Unit for more information.

New England Cottontail Research Activities: Wildlife Division staff has been conducting research, monitoring, assessments, and distribution studies for more than a decade throughout Connecticut. The resulting information has been instrumental in delineating focus areas, selecting habitat restoration sites ,and developing private landowner outreach priorities. Data have been gathered through hunter harvests, roadkills, live-trapping, radio-telemetry , and pellet sampling. 

Preliminary results of research indicate:

  • Distribution of New England cottontails is limited, whereas eastern cottontails are widespread.
  • New England and eastern cottontails often co-occupy habitat patches.
  • Approximately 12% of the cottontails in Connecticut are the New England species.
  • Large and dense habitat patches reduce home range size and increase survival.
  • Continuing habitat loss is the greatest limiting factor.
  • The second limiting factor, augmented by the loss of good habitat, is predation by raptors, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and weasels.

Future research will evaluate the success of ongoing habitat restoration efforts on state lands, including vegetation and New England cottontail response; interactions between New England and eastern cottontails; and the determination of precise habitat requirements of New England cottontails.

{New England cottontail in captivity.} Captive Breeding Program: In addition to the restoration initiative’s core partners, the project also involves the efforts of the University of Rhode Island, University of New Hampshire, and the Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island in a captive breeding program. This project is a pilot study, and it is intended to provide a source of New England cottontails for re-introduction or augmentation of populations at existing or restored habitat locations.

Additional Information:

Upland Shrubland Bird Monitoring

{Eastern towee} There are many birds that use shrubland habitat at some point in their life, but there is a group of about 40 birds that rely specifically on shrubland habitat for breeding. These are shrubland habitat specialists, and they include state listed species such as golden-winged warbler, brown thrasher, and yellow-breasted chat, and other regionally declining species such as blue winged warbler, field sparrow, eastern towhee, and prairie warbler. Within this habitat clade, the individual species also further specialize to prefer different types of shrubland habitat. Field sparrows are more abundant in wildlife openings than forestry clearcuts, while eastern towhees and prairie warblers are more abundant in forestry clear cuts than wildlife openings. These different preferences reflect different needs for nesting. Ground nesting shrubland birds like the field sparrow prefer to have areas with more grass cover to hide their nests, while eastern towhees and prairie warblers prefer areas with more shrub cover because they nest or forage in the shrub layer specifically. Although there are slight differences in habitat selection among these early successional species, one characteristic remains the same. Once the structure and species composition of the habitat changes through continued forest succession, these habitat specialists disappear from the site. This disappearance happens within a decade after disturbance. Consequently, if sites are not actively managed, or new sites are not produced through disturbance or management, these birds will not continue to have habitat for breeding.

It is not surprising given their habitat requirements and the rate of decline of this habitat, that 80% of the total species that rely on shrubland habitat are experiencing some sort of regional or national decline. Already, New England populations of eastern towhee and brown thrasher have declined by over 90% since the 1960’s. Additionally, regional conservation plans recognize the substantial declines of certain species for which Connecticut holds regional responsibility, including eastern towhee, prairie warbler, and blue-winged warbler.

In 2010, the Wildlife Division initiated a project to monitor shrubland birds and their associated habitats. Four species of shrubland birds were selected as indicator species of these important habitats; blue-winged warblers, eastern towees, field sparrows, and prairie warblers. Staff and volunteers established a network of survey points on state properties containing shrubland habitat that was created either through forest cutting or wildlife habitat management practices. Forty survey points were located in state forests and forty were located on wildlife management areas. At each point, data was collected on habitat structure and quality. Ten minute point count surveys were conducted at each site three times during the breeding season. The data were analyzed to determine the abundance of each of the 4 target species in lands managed through forest cuts and through wildlife management openings. It was determined that state forests and wildlife management areas combined with the shrubland habitat found on utility right of ways would support approximately 1,700 blue-winged warblers, 2,700 eastern towhees, 550 field sparrows, and 1,200 prairie warblers. These estimated populations represent less than 20% of the population goals set by Connecticut's Wildlife Action Plan for the prairie warbler and less than 10% for the blue-winged warbler, eastern towhee, and field sparrow. Therefore, active management of state lands needs to increase to help meet population goals. It will also be important to encourage partners and private land owners to assist with providing habitat for these birds.

Additional Information:

American Woodcock Habitat Use and Survival

{American woodcock} Woodcock populations have been declining within their range during the last 50 years. Their decline is most likely attributed to the loss of early successional habitat due to development and forest maturation. Unfortunately, it is not only woodcock populations that are declining. As this habitat type continues to decrease, so do the other associated wildlife species.

Woodcock require a variety of different habitats throughout their life cycle. Woodcock are not restricted to specific vegetation types, as long as the habitat provides the necessary early successional structure. In the spring, male woodcock claim breeding territories known as singing grounds. Singing grounds are clearings in young forests that male woodcock display in to attract potential mates. They are in close proximity to areas of early successional habitat where female woodcock can nest and rear their young. As summer progresses into early fall, woodcock will utilize more open areas to roost. In these areas, woodcock will sit on the ground among scattered areas of briars, shrubs, and weeds. This patchy mixture of cover protects against avian predators, yet it is not so thick that it prevents their escape from ground predators. Woodcock will use early successional habitat for resting and feeding as they migrate between northern breeding areas and southern wintering areas in the fall.

The Woodcock Habitat Use and Survival project, which was initiated in 2005. The project was funded by the Pittman-Robertson Program and through partnerships with sportsman’s groups and others who were concerned about the well-being of American woodcock.

The study looked at habitat use and survival of woodcock. Study sites were either excellent quality (large, contiguous blocks specifically managed for young forest habitat) or lower quality (disjunct, patchy, suburban interface). Researchers hypothesized that survival rates and habitat use would differ between woodcock inhabiting large, high quality blocks of habitat and those found in more patchy, fragmented, lower quality habitats.

Over the course of a three-year period, it was found that habitat quality and quantity are largely governing survival rates of male woodcock in Connecticut. Higher quality habitats in the study were characterized by higher standing basal area, fewer stems per acre, and fewer and larger openings than lower quality sites. This is a bit contrary to what was expected going into the study. Woodcock in Connecticut primarily seem to be using forest stands that are more mature than was thought. Researchers in the Mississippi Flyway found that migrating woodcock used mature forests more than expected. In both cases, this was likely a function of availability. Quantity of woodcock habitat in Connecticut is lacking, as demonstrated by the large home ranges used by Connecticut birds.

It seems clear from our research that the fragmentation of young forest habitat in Connecticut serves as an ecological sink. In low quality sites, which represented most of the existing woodcock habitat in the state, survival rates in two of three years were lower than would be required for population maintenance and growth. Differences between size of core use areas and the corresponding higher survival rates that were detected in birds using high quality sites were indicative of the influence that habitat across the landscape has on these birds. Although we were unable to fully assess nesting success and female survival, the low survival rates of males and the downward trend in statewide surveys indicate that the current habitat condition in most of Connecticut is unlikely to result in a positive growth rate for woodcock in the state.

Additional Information: