Hawks Aloft Inc.
PO Box 10028
Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
Fax: 505 828-9769
E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

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Hawks Aloft Blog

Animals and Forest Fires, Pt.1

The wildfires that recently raged in California’s North Bay have renewed concerns about the dangers and effects of forest fire across the West. After dealing with the immediate concerns—that the fire spread so uncontrollably and killed several dozen people and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, and other developed spaces, many began to wonder about the less apparent effects, for example—what happens to wildlife during these events? Hawks Aloft supporters might be wondering in particular—what happens to birds during forest fires?  

Forest fires aren’t necessarily unnatural or bad. In fact, over millennia, many species have evolved to cope with fire where it is a natural part of the landscape. In fact, some organisms, like morel mushrooms, for example, only produce spores when stimulated by the heat of fire. Additionally, certain plants only seed in the aftermath of events such as these and young aspen trees thrive in the nutrient rich soil post-burn. Some birds benefit tremendously—take, for example, species of woodpecker, who when new habitats are formed in the wake of forest fire, swoop in and feast on bark beetles exposed in dying trees. Species like these actually benefit as a result of wildfire.  

Three-toed Woodpecker, image by Alan Murphy

Yet, October’s fires in California were caused by human activity, not natural events such as lightning. And with a rising global temperature, fire season is lasting longer, and individual fires are blazing for extended periods of time. When massive fires such as these attack landscapes where natural fire activity has long been suppressed, the impacts can be more far-reaching.  

Generally speaking, birds fly away, mammals run, and amphibians and other small animals burrow into the ground or hide in logs or under rocks. Young, weak animals, and nestling birds (during certain times of the year, of course) are the losers in these scenarios, because they are unable to flee to safety. Despite these inevitable casualties, usually direct mortality to avian life isn’t very broad or devastating during forest fires.  

What can negatively impact bird populations in areas of forest fire are things like air quality. Birds are circular breathers, so smoke from fires can damage their delicate respiratory systems. However, impacts like these haven’t been widely studied on bird populations, so it is difficult to gauge the number of birds who might have succumbed to these peripheral effects. 

For example, during a 1999 fire in the Everglades, smoke is thought to have contributed to the deaths of 50 adult White Ibises, and low-flying birds, by some accounts, suffer even more.  

In New Mexico, Hawks Aloft has spent five years monitoring birds in the Jemez, gauging various species responses to fire, and the habitats created in their aftermath. So far, what we have come to understand is that responses vary considerably across the 112 species documented there. Species of concern, like the Grace’s Warbler were far less present in burned habitat than unburned, while species like the Western Bluebird seemed to thrive in burned landscapes. A sample of information gleaned from our studies is pictured below.

Image by David Powell, featuring information gained through five years of study by Hawks Aloft staff

Every forest fire is different in its breadth and reach, and each habitat is different. It will take time and deliberate study to understand the impacts of California’s fires on the bird life there. As always and as a testament to the resilience of nature, some species will be hurt and some will thrive after this widespread blaze. What is assured, that given time, the forest will rebound and the habitat there will, once again, transform.  

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