Above: A blackened trunk is just the home for a black-backed woodpecker. Forest fires are part of nature but are becoming more extensive – and more comprehensive – with climate change. Photo: Jean Hall

FOREST FIRES ARE just part of the natural life-cycle of some bird species, but even they are finding the current rise in massive wildfires too hot to handle, reports suggest.

Just-published research in The Condor: Ornithological Applications notes that the North American black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) prefers to nest close to the edge of burned patches of forest. But, as fires become more extensive and severe with climate change, these edge habitats are becoming harder for them to come by.

An eight-year study in northern California by Andrew Stillman of the University of Connecticut, with colleagues from The Institute for Bird Populations and the US Forest Service, found that the birds much preferred to nest in severely burned stands with lots of dead trees – but typically within 500 metres of living tree patches.

This was an unexpected finding, since previous studies had shown nests in such close proximity were more likely to be predated by squirrels and other animals. However, another recent study by Mr Stillman and others has shown that, often, the fledglings of this species move into living patches with good cover soon after leaving their nest. 

Climate change is fostering larger fires with reduced “pyrodiversity” (diversity in the age, size and severity of burned patches) which produce the conditions that appear to suit the species best.

“Every year we see more ‘mega-fires’,” said co-author of the study Dr Morgan Tingley of the University of Connecticut. “So even though the future is expected to hold more fire in western forests, the outlook may not even be good for fire-loving species.”

A third co-author, Dr Rodney Siegel, added: “A central goal of our multi-year partnership with the Forest Service is to better understand the specific habitat needs of black-backed woodpeckers and other species that use burned forests. This information allows forest managers to design management activities that are more compatible with the needs of wildlife.”

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