Wildlife Watch: Bird-friendly maple certification catches on with producers

WASHINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It's well known that Vermont produces more maple syrup than any other state in the nation. But what you might not know is there's a relatively new push to protect the trees and wildlife that live in the sugarbush.

James Buck proudly shows off the evaporator on his family's 70-acre maple sugaring farm in Washington. The Buck family makes about 800 gallons of syrup here every year. And they are good at what they do. Blue ribbons hang from the bottles on display.

Outside, retired wildlife biologist John Buck points to the woods that produce the sap. Like his son, there is a certain level of pride in his voice. After all, the Bucks aren't just making maple syrup, they are also tending to the trees.

"One of the interests that we have out here is maintaining the integrity of the forest -- for all of the wildlife species that live here," Buck said.

And that includes birds, like thrush and warbler, which flourish in the region. But the Bucks don't just talk about being good stewards of the land, they also have stamp of approval. "We have a special stamp from Audubon Vermont that indicates that the management practices on our property here are all very bird-friendly," he said.

Steve Hagenbuch manages Audubon Vermont's Bird-Friendly Maple project, which began about five years ago. "Vermont is tops in the country when it comes to producing maple syrup. We do about 47 percent of the U.S. crop every year. We are also, in the summer months, home to some of the greatest diversity of birds species in the nesting season than anywhere else in the country," he said.

This sugar farm is one of 37 across Vermont to be certified as bird-friendly. In order to achieve that, farms must maintain the natural diversity of the land. Which means that on this property, along with the 2,000 taps and lines, you'll also find pines and birch in between the maple as well as standing dead trees and plenty of young growth. "These are all part of a natural forest and those are the things we ask producers to do in their management in order to enhance the bird habitat," Hagenbuch said.

About 25 percent of the trees, according to Audubon Vermont, should be something other than sugar maple in order for a forest to be called bird-friendly. That means snowmobile trails to get to the taps are still allowed when it comes to the bird-friendly seal. "And those trails are important, but to go through and clear everything out, from all areas of the sugarbush, would definitely be very detrimental, not just to bird habitat -- because that is where a lot of birds are nesting come summertime -- just for the long-term health of this forest," Hagenbuch said.

He says that studies show birds do better when there is a mix of trees to live in. "Diversity is the spice of life, as we say for us, and it is true for wildlife as well," Hagenbuch said.

In a less diverse forest, the experts say bird populations are adversely affected. And it's not just the animals that are impacted. The forests themselves can become more vulnerable. "And a monoculture is very susceptible to disease or a weather event or anything that might destroy or damage the forest," Buck said.

There are about 1,000 members of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, so 37 bird-friendly farmers is really just a fraction. Audubon Vermont is trying to grow that number while advocating for long-term sustainability. They say that way the forests stay healthy so the sap continues to run.

A stamp on maple products lets the consumer know exactly where their syrup is coming from. A sticker that the Buck says adds value to their product. "We want them to know that the syrup has been made with great care for the earth. That is our primary concern, that we are taking good care of the earth and the trees and animals that live here," he said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the bird-friendly maple project can contact Audubon Vermont.