Rising from the Ashes – Wildfires, Birds, and Their Habitat

The 2018 fire season’s explosive Carr and Mendocino Complex (California) conflagrationss – among many others – illustrate the damage wildfires do to human infrastructure as well as fire’s effects on birds, other animals, and their habitat. This article is third in a natural-disaster series that’s already looked at the effects on birds from earthquakes and from volcanic eruptions.

Both short- and long-term effects must be considered. In the short term, somewhat surprisingly, studies show that immediate avian mortality in wildfires is normally low. Stills and video of this season’s fires make it hard to imagine any possibility of escape, but birds can outfly even these flames.

When significant mortality occurs, it’s almost always due to smoke inhalation in thick smoke that obscures vision and renders escape more problematic. Birds’ airways are damaged by smoke in the same ways humans’ are; severe or prolonged exposure can cause death, and birds who recover from lesser exposures can still end up with chronic breathing problems.

Nonetheless, most birds survive the immediate fire. But when a fire burns 350,000 acres (nearly 1,000 square miles!) in a matter of days, as the Mendocino Complex fire has done, what becomes of the habitat and the birds that relied on it for food and shelter?

Here we discover an interesting difference between the effects of massive eruptions and huge wildfires. Such eruptions create a central “kill radius” inside which essentially nothing survives. Even intense wildfires, by contrast, “hopscotch” and leave numerous untouched pockets of vegetation where recolonization can begin almost immediately.

Even the burned out sections can support returning bird life relatively early on. Again unlike eruptions with their all-devouring surges of incandescent ash, wildfires leave behind partially carbonized branches and trunks. Those rapidly become both food source and ”condo complex” for wood-boring beetles and their larvae. These delectable grubs attract woodpeckers in particular. The new clearings created in the burned-over areas become swarming grounds for all sorts of aerial bugs – and feeding grounds for flycatchers, bluebirds and the like. Birds that nest in clearings but feed in the surrounding untouched patches also find new homes with little ado.

Birds themselves play a significant part in the land’s re-greening after wildfires. They eat seed-containing berries and fruits, and in the process of digesting the tasty part, their acidic juices weaken the seed coats and facilitate easier germination. The birds fly hither and thither, excreting as they go, thereby assuring a wide distribution of now-ready-to-sprout seeds complete with a starting dose of guano fertilizer.

Another aspect of wildfires is their natural place in the ecosystem. We now understand how fire plays a key part in germination of seeds in species such as lodgepole pines, jack pines, banksia and eucalyptus. In some species heat is necessary to melt the resinous coating surrounding their seeds; in others, remarkably, chemical “indicators” in the smoke itself will trigger the seeds’ germination process. This allows repopulation by the original flora. The endangered Kirtland’s warbler, as one example, benefits from this cycle: It feeds only on young jack pines that sprout from the ashes of their parent trees.

Until recent years forest managers didn’t recognize the importance of regular, smaller fires that thin the undergrowth and burn accumulating deadwood. Our Forest Service worked hard for decades to suppress any and all fires; the result has been fewer, but more intense and damaging blazes that destroy these seeds rather than triggering germination. And on the front doorstep of climate change, even the “fewer” term in that equation is now called into question.

Proper forest management is a key to restoring and preserving the equilibrium that we ourselves tipped into imbalance. In doing this, we also help to assure the longer-term stability of that ecosystem as well as its bird and other animal populations.

Prairies too, like temperate and boreal forests, rely on fire to consume weeds, shrubs and dry brush, allowing native prairie flora more “elbowroom” and access to light. Birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the horned lark thrive on recently-burned prairie.

Fire in a tropical forest is a different matter. The soil in most such forests is relatively thin and rainfall tends to be high. Exposing this soil to the elements as the result of fire often causes it to wash away and erode, or in other cases “laterize” (turn quickly to hardpan). In either case the forest will regenerate poorly, the habitat will be sparse and food will be scarce. Too many of these fires are started by humans eager to clear land for grazing or agriculture and failing to recognize the irreversible damage they’re setting in motion. To boot, the same natural processes quickly render the newly cleared land unsuitable for man’s intended use.

Many species of tropical-forest-dwelling birds have already had their numbers depleted by loss of habitat and, in species such as psittacines popular with bird fanciers, by excessive wild harvesting (or outright poaching, in many cases). An ever-diminishing range exerts severe pressure on populations. The additional insult of a tropical forest fire and its aftermath can force such species to the brink of extinction.

A discussion of birds and wildfires would be remiss not to mention the issue of whether several Australian raptor species (locally and colloquially called “firehawk raptors”) actually take advantage of fires deliberately to secure prey. The black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and brown falcon (Falco berigora) have all been fingered as suspected arsonists.

No, they don’t rub branches together or strike steel to flint. They accomplish this by congregating at an existing fire, seizing burning branches in their beaks, carrying them for up to a kilometer and dropping them into unburned areas to spread the flames. The resulting blaze drives rodents and other prey ahead of it, allowing the waiting raptors to pick them off easily.

This behavior has been observed in flocks of more than a hundred, and researchers believe the birds’ strategy is intentional and directed. “It’s not gratuitous,” Australian ethnobiologist and ornithologist Bob Gosford says. “There’s a purpose. There’s an intent to say, okay, there are several hundred of us there, we can all get a meal.”

But though Aboriginal oral history abounds with tales of these firebirds, and more than a dozen modern-day sightings of this behavior are recorded, skeptics still point to a lack of photographic evidence. And even were such evidence forthcoming, the question of intentionality will continue to be debated hotly.

To sum up, birds affected by wildfires will suffer significant short-term disruption typically followed by recolonization, quickly in some areas and more slowly in others. The existing equilibrium is knocked off balance and “oscillates” for a time, with old species declining or being supplanted by new immigrants, followed by a gradual return to near steady state.

Birds themselves play a part in the regrowth of burned areas by bringing insect infestation under control and by spreading seeds already encased in natural “fertilizer”.

And there are those controversial accounts of a handful of Promethean raptor species snatching up blazing brands and firebombing the outback — using fire as a tool to roust prey and drive it towards their drooling beaks.

While individual species may not fare well in some instances, birds overall continue to demonstrate their resilience to wildfires much as they do to other large-scale natural events that humans call “catastrophes”. Indeed, some may even make good advantage of them.


Modern Falconry: Cultural Heritage caught in Geopolitics

Falconry, an ancient cultural heritage arising around 2,000 BC in Mongolia or Central Asia, is alive and well in the Mideast. In fact, mid Eastern nations predominate in the United Nations listing of Falconry as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Mid Eastern falconry made BBC news reports today as more evidence from a 2015 terrorist kidnapping incident came to light. In 2015, a group of 28 Qatari citizens, Royal family members among them, traveled with their falcons to southern Iraq, where, reportedly, favorite prey of the Sakara falcon — the Houbara bustard– then abounded.

Alarmingly, terrorists invaded the Qatari camp and held the group hostage eighteen months, allegedly until ransom was paid.

Sheikh Muhammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, newly appointed foreign minister, received a list of hostages taken and immediately recognized the names of two Royal family relatives. It fell to the new Qatari emissary to Iraq, Zayed al-Kayareen to handle the tense negotiations.

Meanwhile, the kidnappers stowed the Royal family members in a windowless prison cell, providing minimal sustenance. When the men emerged some sixteen months later, they had lost approximately 50% of their body weight.

Mid Eastern desert falconer (Creative Commons)

Variously identified as ISIS, and Hezbollah, ultimately the kidnappers appear to have demanded payment to Kataib Hezbollah (a shiite group supported by Iran). The ransom demands varied over time. Allegedly $1 billion was demanded and paid, yet whether the money remains in the coffers of Iraq’s Central Bank or did in fact make its way to Kataib Hezbollah remains unclear.

Mid Eastern sakara falcon (Wikipedia Commons)

What is clear is that neighboring states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt had previously blockaded Qatar precisely on suspicion the country provided funding to terrorists. And if ransom was delivered by Qatari jet illegally over neighboring airspace, more than falcon feathers are ruffled.

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Volcanic Eruptions’ Effects
on Bird Populations

Volcanic eruptions predate life on earth, and volcanic eruptions can harm or kill wildlife locally and sometimes even globally. Yet life evolved, and has persisted despite such catastrophes.

Birds are affected as other animals are: by the explosions themselves, the pyroclastic flows that follow them, the suffocating ash and gases, the loss of food sources and habitat to lava flows and ashfall, the disruption of usual migratory routes. In extreme cases, volcanic cataclysms can threaten species worldwide when ash is ejected high into the stratosphere, where it circles the earth and blocks sunlight, causing “years without a summer” and perilous crop failures.

Yet birds may enjoy advantages that other animals may not share. In particular, except for flightless birds, their superior mobility in three dimensions may enable them to escape more quickly, find more secure refuge, and eventually resettle their old nesting or feeding grounds before other animals when food and shelter return.

The ongoing eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii recently entered a new phase that threatens bird life in a broad swath of the “Big Island” of Hawaii’s Puna district. Before diving into today’s headlines, let’s first look at several historic eruptions for which the effects on birds have been studied and documented.

Fossil bird, Green River, Wyoming.  Creative Commons.
Fossil bird, Green River, Wyoming.                         Creative Commons

Jehol Biota fossils: Massive volcanic eruptions 125 million years ago in what is now Liaonang, China created white-hot pyroclastic (pulverized molten rock) surges that snuffed all life in their path. Numerous fossils, remarkably similar to fossilized remains from Pompeii, resulted. Among these are many different species of birds, caught “frozen” at the moment of death by superheated clouds of ash that preserved them where and how they fell.

Vesuvius: One of history’s most famous eruptions in 79 CE buried Pompeii and Herculaneum under meters of burning ash and wiped out all life on the upper slopes of the mountain. This eruption caught up domestic birds as well; archaeologists have unearthed not just fossils, but cages, perches, coops and cotes both inside and adjacent to dwellings. Today Vesuvius is a national park, teeming with wildlife including over 100 species of birds — resident, migrant, wintering and breeding types all being well represented.

Mt. St. Helens: The most violent continental US eruption in historic times occurred in 1980. All birds in the 230-square-mile blast / debris avalanche zone died. Many escaped the mudflows and ashfall that created a lunar surface across many more square miles. Nevertheless, birds were flying back into the blast area within days. Old habitats had been destroyed, but new ones had been created that could provide homes for bird species different than those that had predominated. The forest birds were gone, but ground-dwellers found niches in which to nest, and within a few short seasons the land was revegetating. As these new habitats grew increasingly complex, they were colonized by a strikingly diverse array of bird species.

La Soufriere volcano devastated half of Montserrat Island.  Creative Commons.
La Soufriere volcano devastated half of Montserrat Island.                Creative Commons.

Soufriere: A series of Pelean eruptions caused widespread devastation on the Lesser Antilles island of Montserrat between 1995 and 2010. Following each of these explosive eruptions, all forest avian populations declined but rebounded rapidly over the subsequent two to three years. No species were extirpated; all have recovered to their pre-eruption numbers and several ground-foraging species are considerably more abundant. A number of these species are designated “range-restricted species”, endangered due to decreasing habitat, but none of these have experienced population declines.

And lastly Kilauea, Hawaii: Its current eruption began in 1983 (the author was hiking on Kilauea that day) and has persisted almost without pause since then. Its first two years were characterized by periodic high fountaining and short lava flows. The effects were felt only in a small radius of perhaps a mile. Then prolific lava flows began to be produced, and this has continued through today. Several communities and many tens of square miles of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were covered by these flows over the years. Most of this land was already barren, old lava flows with scant vegetation, occupied only by a few Hawaiian owls and traversed by foraging birds.

In 2008 a lava lake formed at the summit of Kilauea and persisted until three months ago. It emitted thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other noxious gases daily, and these gases mixed with water droplets in the air to create “vog” (volcanic smog). Fortunately the land downwind is barren, but wind shifts periodically affected breeding colonies of nēnē (native Hawaiian geese, an endangered species being cared for in the Park). Aggressive human intervention prevented significant harm to these colonies.

Nēnē (Hawaiian goose, Branta sandvicensis).  Creative Commons
Nēnē (Hawaiian goose, Branta sandvicensis).                                       Creative Commons


Kilauea Down-Rift Eruption at Sunset.  U.S. Geological Survey
Kilauea Down-Rift Eruption at Sunset.                              U.S. Geological Survey

In mid-May new vents opened in populated and forested land near the coast far from the summit. These vents have been spewing lava and large quantities of gases continuously ever since. Lava claimed more than 600 homes in a single searing night and has gobbled up thirteen square miles of tropical green. Lava is entering the ocean on a four-mile-wide front and has created a square mile of new land. Sulfur dioxide has killed or seriously damaged many additional square miles of forest and crops. In the meantime the summit crater has commenced a slow collapse, interspersed every couple of days with large steam and ash explosions when rockfalls block the crater throat and bottle up the pressure until it “pops”.

Kilauea Crater post-explosions and collapses.   U.S. Geological Survey
Kilauea Crater post-explosions and collapses.                            U.S. Geological Survey

This new eruptive phase has therefore caused significant loss of local avian habitat, sparing neither land, air nor water birds. Despite little evidence of outright eruption-caused mortality, bird populations have largely fled the affected areas when given that option. Newly lava-inundated land will offer scanty habitat for decades to come.

Lava meets the ocean in the morning mists.  U.S. Geological Survey
Lava meets the ocean in the morning mists.                 U.S. Geological Survey

One particular area has fared especially poorly. The Malama Ki Forest Reserve, a little downslope from the eruption, was invaded by — and partway covered with — lava. The Malama Ki reserve had been set aside as one of the last native habitats of several species of Hawaiian birds, above all the ‘io – Hawaii’s only native raptor, listed for many years as an endangered species. ‘Io will nest only in the specific type of forest found in the reserve, but nearly half of this reserve is now yards deep in hardened lava, scattered with ash-white trunks of incinerated hundred-foot trees.

Malama Ki Forest Reserve, with vents and active lava flows shown.  U.S. Geologic Survey
Malama Ki Forest Reserve, with vents and active lava flows shown. U.S. Geologic Survey

The eruption’s environmental degradation jeopardizes the continuing survival of a unique ‘io sub-population notwithstanding its unusually high resistance to many avian diseases, which makes this threatened diminution of biodiversity tragic. According to Dept. of Land & Natural Resources Hawaii island manager Steve Bergfeld, these birds “may no longer persist, may rapidly decline, or become further fragmented and/or contract in range.” The jury remains out on the fate of these scarce ‘io.

Pueo (Hawaiian owl, Asio flammeus) and 'io (Hawaiian hawk, Buteo solitarius).  Creative Commons
Pueo (Asio flammeus) and ‘io (Buteo solitarius).             Creative Commons

Most volcanic eruptions that cause a large loss of animal life are of the explosively short-lived type: Vesuvius, Tambora, Krakatoa, Pelée, St. Helens, Soufriere, and Pinatubo, for example. Kilauea’s eruption is now 35 years old, having largely maintained a nonexplosive steady-state, thus offering insight into both short- and long-term effects on various avian populations.

Fossil and historical records show the first type of eruption causes immediate and severe harm to bird populations, but also that birds resettle opportunistically once sustainable habitat becomes available. The overall population rebounds, but some species may not return and new ones may populate entirely new types of habitat.

Hawaii presents a different challenge with its threatened native bird species and recent change in eruptive behavior. Kilauea’s long, less violent eruption has had more subtle effects and fewer acute crises (until now) allowing us sufficient time to mitigate its impact on Hawaiian birds, particularly endangered species. It is to be hoped that Tutu Pele – loved, respected and feared Hawaiian volcano goddess — will now take pity on her remaining hawk and duck populations and spare them any further in-person visits.



Jehol Biota (regional species extinction): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/pompeii-animals-shows-dinosaurs-mammals-and-early-birds-death-throes-180949580/

Vesuvius (all local species): http://www.vesuvioinrete.it/e_parco.htm

Mt. St. Helens (all local species): https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/mtsthelens/faq/q5.shtml

Soufriere (all local species): https://www.fs.fed.us/global/iitf/pubs/ja_iitf_2007_dalsgaard001.pdf

Malama Ki Forest Reserve (‘io, nene): http://www.staradvertiser.com/2018/06/05/hawaii-news/kilauea-eruption-harms-up-to-half-of-punas-malama-ki-forest-reserve/


Deception Island (penguins): https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14914

Kasatochi (auklets): https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180425131815.htm

Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic birds; all Africa <–> Europe migratory species):



(for anyone who’s amused when somebody flips the script totally)