Nature's Firebirds

Dave Mehlman is Director of The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program.

We bet you have a firebird near you. And we’re not talking about Pontiac's epic ride.

We mean American birds that depend on the restorative power of natural fires to create the habitat they need to survive. View a slide show of these birds!

We spoke with Dave Mehlman, The Nature Conservancy’s bird expert, about these species all over the country that depend on fire. Here's what he had to say:

Great Lakes— Kirtland’s Warbler

The Kirtland’s warbler is one of the rarest songbirds in North America and it can only be found in small portions of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario during the breeding season. This bird has an unusual natural friend—intense forest fires. Kirtland’s warblers nest primarily in large stands of young jack pine, which are created by regeneration from seed after intense fires. In this forest type, the role of fire is to hit the ‘reset’ button and start a new forest that can become a suitable home for the warblers after about five years.

Great Plains— Mountain Plover

Like other plovers, the Mountain Plover is a species of shorebird, but this poorly named animal doesn’t actually live either by the shore or the mountains. It lives on the Great Plains of North America and is highly dependent on disturbances such as grazing and fire. In Colorado’s Pawnee National Grassland, federal fire staff use controlled burns to create breeding habitat for the plover, whose numbers are in decline.

Northeast—Brown Thrasher

Like the warbler, this large songbird thrives in areas that have experienced big disturbances, such as wildfire. In much of their range, Brown Thrashers prefer shrubby habitats, forest edges, and other types of second-growth or regenerating vegetation. Throughout the Northeast these kinds of habitats have been lost by conversion to other uses or regrowth of forests. The Northeast does not experience as many natural wildfires as it used to, so managed controlled burns by The Nature Conservancy and our partners can help enhance habitat for the Brown Thrasher.

Rocky Mountains— Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed Woodpecker has a wide distribution across northern North America and in the northern Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada/Cascades. These tough-headed birds love recently burned forests so they can find their preferred food: wood boring beetle larvae. In fact, with their black back, they are perfectly camouflaged when foraging on the bark of burned trees. Changes in the distribution and size of wildfires in the coniferous forests that they call home over the past century have led to potentially drastic consequences for this fire-dependent species.

Southeast—Red-cockaded Woodpecker

This endangered bird is probably the most famous “firebird” in North America. Red-cockaded woodpeckers were once common in the longleaf pine forests of America’s Southeast. Historically this forest type burned at least once every few years, which created widely-spaced trees that allowed sunlight to nourish a wide variety of forest plants. Today longleaf pine is reduced to only 2% of its historic range and the frequency of fires is greatly reduced; as a result, red-cockaded woodpeckers have suffered. The Nature Conservancy is finding success restoring these birds on several preserves in the South by performing controlled burns, selective thinning, and replanting longleaf pine.

West Coast— Wrentit

Chaparral is a type of habitat dominated by shrubs such as manzanita, huckleberry, and salal, found primarily along the West Coast close the Pacific Ocean. These areas are perfect for Wrentits, small birds able to dive and fly between the small spaces these shrubs provide. Here the Wrentits can nest and find their food, with protection from predators such as snakes and the Western Scrub-Jay. Prescribed burns can be beneficial to this species by promoting mosaics of habitats of different types and ages, which have been shown to increase shrub diversity and nest success.


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