Effect of willow ring harvest on bird population studied

Posted: June 6, 2014 3:25 p.m.

Melissa Mushanski in a
Melissa Mushanski in a "Prairie Pothole" Photo courtesy of Melissa Mushanski

Many Saskatchewan drivers are familiar with potholes on the Prairies. For the past two years, University of Regina Biology Graduate student Melissa Mushanski has spent a lot of time in Prairie Potholes. Not the ones that infuriate drivers this time of year, but the thousands of shallow wetlands that dot the Prairie provinces of Canada, and the Great Plains of the U.S. They are home to willows, known as willow rings, and recently willow rings have been targeted as a renewable source of biomass for bioenergy operations. Melissa is studying what impact the harvesting of willows in the potholes is having on the bird population.

“These wetlands are very important to the birds because this area provides resources and birds that are making long migratory trips fly right through this area during the spring and fall migrations and during those times they need to stop over in these wetlands to re-fuel their energy or else they won’t survive the long trips. So if we don’t have the wetlands there we would start losing a lot of these birds.”

Mushanski says her research focuses on three groups of birds - wetland birds, woodland species and grasslands species.

One of the groups that are harvesting willows is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which has funded Mushanski’s research. The project is being run out of the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head. Mushanski’s research will help to lay out a plan for sustainable harvest.

“Maybe only harvest 50 per cent of the willow vegetation so you still have woodland bird habitat, but you’re still opening those wetlands so the water fowl are enjoying that habitat as well,” she said.

Mushanski goes on to say in other areas where willow rings are in abundance the harvest could be done on a rotational basis to lessen the impact on the bird population.