Woodpecker guides forest management after a fire

Woodpecker guides forest management after a fire

What’s good for the Black-backed Woodpecker is good for restoring California’s burned forests. The unique relationship of birds with fire underpins the latest research on improving post-fire management. A study published in Ecological applications describes a new tool that factors how fires burn into forest management decisions and turns science into action for wildlife conservation.

“Wildfire is like a 10,000 piece puzzle, and climate change is rearranging the pieces,” said lead author Andrew Stillman of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Massive, severe fires are becoming the new norm in California due to drought, longer burn seasons and dense forests. But the birds do very well in “pyrodiverse” landscapes – areas where fires lead to uneven patches burned at high, medium and low severity.

Black-backed woodpeckers love pyrodiversity. They prefer to build their nest cavities in newly burned areas after a high intensity fire. But they also like to be adjacent to an area that burns at low intensity where their young can hide from predators among living trees that still provide shelter. The species’ unique habitat associations mean that they are susceptible to tree removal after a fire, and forest managers use information about the woodpecker to guide their post-fire planning.

New tool predicts peak abundance

After a wildfire, forest managers must make tough decisions about how best to protect and restore burned areas while balancing the needs of people and wildlife. Sometimes there is no time to study wildlife in burned areas, making it difficult to choose where to invest in wildlife conservation. To address this need, researchers developed an online tool to predict the potential abundance of black-backed woodpeckers after a fire. The incorporation of new information on the value of pyrodiversity has made the underlying models more accurate.

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Regrowth among burnt trees in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Jean Hall

“The tool we created uses data from 11 years of surveys to predict where peaks might be found in greatest numbers using data available in the months following a fire,” Stillman said. “Birds move in to enjoy a boom of juicy beetle larvae in scorched trees.”

The online tool uses many layers of information, starting with a satellite-derived layer of burn severity that forest managers can download. This layer is then used to assess pyrodiversity based on the amount of forest cover that has been lost. Other datasets on woodpecker home ranges, vegetation type, latitude, longitude, elevation, years since a fire burned, etc., are also integrated.

A black-backed woodpecker eats beetle larvae after a wildfire in Sierra Nevada, California. Photo by Jean Hall

The new tool will save time and effort after a forest fire and is aimed at forest managers, conservationists and private landowners. It is hosted by the Institute for Bird Populations in partnership with the USDA Forest Service. Although currently being implemented for California, the methods show promise for other regions and species.

“A burnt forest is a unique, incredible, complicated ecosystem bursting with new life,” Stillman said. “At first you think everything is dead. The ground is ash. The trees are black. But as you walk around, you find that the place is alive. It’s not dead, just changed.

Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for providing this news.