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

Logo: Hawks Aloft Inc.

Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Fire

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.  

Add your comment!

Signal Fire and Potential Effects on Mexican Spotted Owls

Mexican Spotted Owl photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mexican Spotted Owl. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Hawks Aloft biologist Mike Fugagli warned us about this particularly elusive Mexican Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis lucida). With hundreds of hours of experience monitoring this species, he so far had been unable to locate the day roost of this male. Nearing what he thought to be the probable nest area, we found whitewash and a small gray owl pellet in a shady grove beneath a spreading oak. All the while, a pair of large black eyes watched the ten of us from above. Formal monitoring protocol calls for offering live mice to the male owl. His response determines the pair’s nesting activity. This fellow was not slow to respond, snagging the first mouse and delivering it to the nest in the cavity of a massive Gambel’s oak. Two more followed in quick succession, confirmation that this pair had already hatched young. Our work done, we departed the Pinos Altos range of the Gila National Forest for Albuquerque around noon on Sunday, May 11, 2014, pleased that things had gone so well.

Spotted Owl pair. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Spotted Owl pair. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mexican Spotted Owls are particularly confiding, allowing close approach by humans, one of the many threats to the species.   It was listed as a threatened subspecies by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 with an estimated population of 777-1554 individuals (1995), due primarily to habitat loss due to timber harvest and the risk of catastrophic fire. The greater Gila region supports more than 50% of the known population of Mexican Spotted Owls, including all distinct genotypes within the subspecies. The Gila also serves as a demographic crossroads and source population making it particularly important to the long-term viability of the subspecies range-wide.

Of the 15 historically occupied Mexican Spotted Owl sites known in the Silver City Ranger District of the Gila National Forest, Hawks Aloft is monitoring six this year, all with currently active nests. The Pinos Altos range, affected by the still-burning Signal Fire, contains the majority of those birds. In 2012, Hawks Aloft monitored 12 owl territories in the Pinos Altos range and found 11 to be occupied, with seven of those sites containing confirmed pairs, an unexpected result as previous studies reported a substantial decline in the greater Gila region between 1990 and 2005. However, only one pair successfully produced young in 2012, probably due to drought and its negative effects on the species’ prey base.

Mother and baby Spotted Owls photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mother and baby Spotted Owls. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

The 2014 monitoring season began in late March when the owls initiated nesting activities. When the Signal Fire started on Mother’s Day, the 30 day incubation period had just ended with most pairs just starting to feed newly hatched owlets. Although only three PACs (Protected Activity Centers) so far have been directly impacted by the now nearly-5700 acre, human-caused blaze, all the birds inhabiting the tinder-dry forests of the American southwest remain threatened. With Stage 1 restrictions in place, all it can take is one careless person to ignite a fire on the windiest day this spring, a wildfire that potentially could have impacted Mexican Spotted Owl breeding productivity. The Forest Service and fire crews were atop this fire almost immediately and the weather cooperated the following days. We thank all of those who work so hard to protect critical habitat for one medium-sized owl and all the other animals that share the forest.

Add your comment!