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Redheaded Woodpecker

Birds Survive the Fire

Nov 21, 2017
by Lisa Hug

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Many people have asked me, “How have the birds done in the fires? What did they do?” This is a very complicated question. There are many different species of birds and they each have their unique adaptations to different environments. However, fire isn’t anything new that birds and other wildlife have not encountered in the past.

Fire is part of the natural cycle of the western forest ecosystem. As parts of the forest are completely mature, other parts sections are still maturing, and still other parts are being renewed by recent burns. This happens over and over. It has been happening for many thousands of years.

For the most part, birds probably fared pretty well through the fires. The ability to fly is a huge advantage for birds during fires. Most would have flown to a safe area. There have been reports of Steller’s Jays in the Laguna lowlands and large numbers of songbirds in peoples’ gardens during the fires. And, luckily for the birds and other wildlife, the fires occurred in the fall – after the nesting season has finished. So, no nestlings or parents tending nestlings would have perished in the fires. In the first weeks of the fire, the most pressing need of the displaced birds would have been finding fresh water. Because of birds’ easy mobility, this was unlikely to have been a major problem for them.

Now that December is here, the forest birds can continue with their normal winter behavior of traveling in mixed-species flocks to search for food. Some birds will be searching for seeds and others will be looking for berries and fruits, and still others will be hunting for insects to prey upon. As long as the birds are not tied to nests, their movements will be fairly free.

Spring is when the real effects of the burns on the birds will become apparent. The forest floor will reawaken with wildflowers. Some blackened shrubs and trees will regrow from their root crowns. And the woodpeckers will arrive! Woodpeckers thrive after forest fires. The woodpeckers follow beetle infestations into the burned forests. There are certain kinds of beetles that sense smoke and heat. They arrive in the burned areas to lay their eggs in the bark of the charred trees. 

Beetle eggs mature into larvae or “grubs” – big, fat, juicy, nutritious grubs that woodpeckers love to eat! And then the woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in which to raise their young. Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Oak Titmice, Western Bluebirds, House Wrens, Bewick’s Wrens and White-breasted Nuthatches will eventually also use these holes for their own nests.

Of course, not all birds nest in tree holes. What happens to birds that need foliage cover for nesting and for gleaning insects? There will be fewer areas of nesting for these birds in the first few years after a fire. But every year there are some birds that don’t find a mate and reproduce. These birds can survive for a few years and float around in the peripheral habitats until a space opens up.

We are still struggling to understand forest fire ecology. But, we have come to realize that fires do not destroy forests. If we visualize the forest as a living being, breathing over time with sections of forest rising with life as regrowth appears and other parts shrinking as fires rage, then it is easier to understand and accept fire as part of the forest ecosystem. In the middle of the 20th century we believed that fire needed to be suppressed in order to preserve forests. It is currently popular to believe that having more frequent, cooler underbrush fires is the way to maintain a healthy forest. And now, some ecologists are advocating that very hot fires that burn whole large trees are healthy and necessary for the forest to truly thrive (Bond, et.al, The Wildlife Professional, winter, 2012).

The birds will adapt.  They will continue to live in our region’s wild lands. And we will adapt. We will use our optimism, resourcefulness, and spirit of generosity and to help each other through this challenging time.

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