Fire and birds

Increasing trend of fires in California is putting pressure on bird populations

Firefighters battle the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite. Photo: USFWS

“We’re having to confront the reality that wildfires, and all the destruction that comes with them, are going to be a bigger part of our future here in California,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation.

Hers is not a controversial opinion. This year is rapidly emerging as California’s worst year on record with regard to wildfires – beating out last year, which few thought we would ever top. More than a million acres burned across the state in 2017. This year, we’ve lost about 820,000 acres to fire, about twice the amount that burned at this point last year. And we haven’t even technically reached fire season.

Experts have pointed to a number of reasons for the increased number and destructiveness of California wildfires: climate change, prolonged drought, and greater amounts of dry, fire-prone forest and grassland. The trend has all kinds of ramifications for residents, who are now confronting regular threats to property, if not their lives, from wildfires.

It's important note here that wildlifes are a natural and healthy part of California's forest, woodland, and grassland ecosystems. Fires provide nutrients and allow natural areas to regenerate properly. Birds and other wildlife are adapted to fires, and their populations will not be negatively affected by them under normal circumstances.

But California is in uncharted territory with its fires, which are becoming more numerous, more frequent, and more intense. These new fires pose a new threat to California’s birds, which are already stressed by habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and other factors.

According to Jones, wildfires affect birds in a number of ways, many of which aren’t immediately apparent.

“At this time of year, when birds aren’t breeding, the affect on birds from the fires isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s still significant,” Jones says. “You won’t see huge numbers of dead birds on the ground, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.”

Birds, of course, are highly mobile. And the songbirds that largely populate the forests and grasslands that tend to burn typically can fly out of the path of the flames in most instances. But that is only the start of their problems. They often move into other habitat areas, where they must then compete with resident birds for limited food and water.

It is important to note that many birds, such as the Black-backed Woodpecker actually rely on burned areas for survival.

While shorebirds and waterbirds live mostly out of the way of wildfires, Jones expressed concern about Western and Clark’s grebes that are nesting in northern lakes near the massive Mendocino Complex Fire. These are birds that live a large portion of their lives in bays and estuaries but come to lakes such as Clear Lake and Eagle Lake to breed.

“They make their nests on the water, but it’s hard to imagine having all that smoke and fire nearby not affecting the birds in some way,” Jones says.

At the time of this writing, Jones had identified three Audubon Important Bird Areas that are in the path of the current fires. These include the Clear Lake Important Bird Area and the Eagle Lake Important Bird Area, which are right in the vicinity of the massive Mondocino Complex Fire.

There is also the Southern Orange County Preserves Important Bird Area, which is in the vicinity of the Holy Fire in Orange County/Riverside County.

Jones adds that the fires will have a significant impact on birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

“Right now, we’re just at the start of songbird migration, so we’re going to be seeing a lot of birds coming south, looking for their usual resting spots, particularly along river corridors, in these burn areas,” she says. “When they find these areas burned, they’ll probably continue on their way in search of reliable habitat, or they’ll just try to make it further south without an important stop to rest and refuel.”

Bird migration, Jones notes, is a series of stops, each of which are vital to a bird’s survival. If we remove these links in the chain, birds will have difficulty completing their journeys.

Jones said that the next few months will be particularly good times for people to put out food and water for birds, particularly if they live near the burn areas.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from people that they never saw a species of bird at their feeders until there was a big fire nearby,” Jones says. “These birds migrating through are going to need some help.”

Effects on habitat

Sandy DeSimone is the director of research and education at Audubon’s Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Orange County, and she has studied closely the effects of fire on habitat in Southern California.

“It’s always important to understand that fire is a natural part of almost every California ecosystem, and in many ways is important to its health,” says DeSimone.

But DeSimone says that the intense, frequent fires that California has seen in recent years are not normal, and sometimes not healthy for habitat.

“There is research that shows that fires that return after five years or less change habitat type,” she says. “They shown how frequent fires have converted shrubland landscape into non-native annual grassland. A change to a less supportive habitat could spell a lot of trouble for birds and other wildlife.”

Even in areas where habitat doesn’t convert, it will take a few years for complex layers of habitat to rebuild in California’s burned areas, and as noted above in some cases, what returns may not be what was there before.

“Nesting habitat will be at a premium in large portions of northern California and this could impact an entire generation of birds in some areas if they are unable to find suitable habitat,” note Jones.

Moving forward

President Trump recently asserted that the way to address the California wildfires was to roll back the state’s environmental laws and somehow make more water available. While this opinion has been flatly rejected by every person with any expertise on California’s situation, it does highlight the fact that there are a wide number of opinions on how to address the wildfire issue.

“Forest management in California requires significant public investment and immediate action,” says Mike Lynes, Audubon California’s director of public policy. “At the same time, we cannot let special interests that want to undermine environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act use this crisis as an excuse to further harm wildlife and the environment.”

Lynes says that any solution will have to find the right balance by prioritizing human health and safety while considering other important factors, including wildlife protection, recreation, and economic activities.

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