This article from Audubon is well worth reading. It sheds light on questions we’re discussed at length here.
Many birds, such as owls and woodpeckers, thrive in forest habitats created after fire. But the hotter, bigger, more destructive megafires out West might be too much even for them.
After the King Fire, Jones returned to his research site to see how California Spotted Owls responded to the devastation. The massive fire swept through more than 97,000 acres, which included 44 percent of the study area and 30 of the owl’s 45 known nesting sites within it. Jones tracked the owls, which had already been outfitted with GPS receivers and colored leg bands, and found that a year later the birds had abandoned the most severely burned areas where more than 75 percent of trees died. These severely burned areas represented 50 percent of the fire’s total burn area.
It’s not that California Spotted Owls avoid all severely burned areas after fire—just the largest patches. They rarely venture more than 325 feet deep into a severe burn, Jones found in follow-up research at the King Fire site. But do they recolonize smaller patches that burned severely? To find out, he also studied owls in three western national parks in the Sierra Nevada where forest managers intentionally set small fires, and let natural ones burn, to maintain healthy, historical wildfire regimes. He saw that the California Spotted Owl returned to smaller patches even if they burned intensely, while avoiding larger ones—maybe because wide expanses with fewer trees are home to less prey or offer less cover from predators, such as the Great Horned Owl. “To us, that suggests again there’s this adaptive response,” Jones says. “Owls are adapted to frequent, low-severity fires,” not intense megafires.
The article also discusses black-backed woodpeckers:
Even the Black-backed Woodpecker, long-considered a bird that thrives after intense fires, apparently has its limits. The woodpecker flocks to burned-out forests to feast on beetle larvae that infest dying and dead trees. However, Andrew Stillman, an avian ecologist at the University of Connecticut and Tingley’s student, made a surprising discovery when he attached radio transmitters to adult and juvenile birds over the course of seven years.
As expected, adult woodpeckers primarily kept to severely burned areas. “But the juveniles were a different story,” Stillman says. “Right after leaving the nest, these young birds flew to areas with live trees remaining after fire.” He suspects they preferred these areas because the living trees provide protection from predators. This species, too, needs pyrodiversity.
“Our conventional thinking was that more severe fires might be good for certain species that thrive in burned forests,” Stillman says. “But our research shows that even fire-loving species need variation in burn severity to survive.”
— Thanks to Nick Smith for including the link to this article in his Sept. 30 Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities email.