Study: The Black-backed Woodpecker can breed in burned or unburned forests

Black-backed Woodpecker

A woodpecker species once thought to be restricted to recently burned areas can also breed successfully in unburned parts of fire-prone landscapes, according to a study by scientists at Oregon State University. The research sheds new light on the Black-backed Woodpecker and has key implications for improving conservation and forest management efforts.

Doctoral student Mark Kerstens and OSU College of Forestry faculty member Jim Rivers conducted the study on the woodpecker, which lives across northern North America.

Because woodpecker populations are sensitive to large-scale forest disturbances, they serve as an indicator to guide management decisions, the researchers note. Woodpeckers exert a strong influence on the surrounding ecological community by creating nesting sites that benefit a range of vertebrates and other organisms.

The black-backed woodpecker has become a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss resulting from post-fire management of burned areas, as wildfires have increased in size and intensity in recent decades, scientists say.

The bird’s range covers much of Canada, parts of Alaska, and the upper parts of the contiguous United States, including the Pacific Northwest, and the woodpecker’s black and gray coloration makes it ideal camouflage in an environment of charred trees.

Rivers and Kerstens studied woodpeckers in a 165,000-hectare area in the Klamath Basin, southern Oregon, in stands characterized by lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and mixed pine.

“Black-backed woodpeckers have long been thought to nest only in coniferous forests that have recently experienced high-intensity fires,” said Rivers, assistant professor of wildlife ecology. “Although burned areas provide important habitat for this species, recent studies have noted that they occupy large areas of unburned forest in the western part of their range during breeding season, raising the question of whether green areas can support viable breeding populations.”

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Woodpecker nests compared in green and burnt forests

During three breeding seasons, 2018, 2019 and 2021, scientists collected data to assess whether important population parameters differed between woodpeckers nesting in green and burned forests.

“We tracked 91 nests, 34 in green forest and 57 in burnt forest,” Kerstens said. “We found that neither daily nest survival rate nor reproductive output – the number of fledglings per successful nest – differed between green and burnt forest nests; we also found that the body condition of the nestlings was somewhat better in the green forest.

In addition, scientists monitored the survival of recently fledged birds with VHF radiotelemetry beacons and determined that the survival rate of birds in green forest was similar to that in burnt forest, with most mortalities occurring within four weeks of fledging.

“Although breeding pair densities in green forest are lower than those in burned forest, our research shows that certain types of green forest, particularly mature lodgepole pine, can support viable populations of black-backed woodpeckers in the western part of the bird’s range,” Rivers said. “These findings have implications for conservation because green spaces are more stable in the resources they provide, they occupy much of the region’s forest landscape, and they are often adjacent to areas subject to high intensity fires.”

This means, the researchers say, that practices that help build “pyrodiversity” – the temporal and spatial variability of fire effects at the landscape scale – are likely to provide the greatest conservation benefit for the Black-backed Woodpecker. Management that will also provide the habitat features the species requires, such as medium to large diameter trees, and connectivity between green forest and burnt forest will also be beneficial.

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The study was published in Ornithological applications.

Thanks to Oregon State University for providing this news.

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