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Woodpeckers for fire recovery? A new online tool tells you how

A black-backed woodpecker in a Parker 2 Fire area in Modoc County, California.

A black-backed woodpecker in a Parker 2 Fire area in Modoc County, California. Image by Julio Mulero via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • An online tool maps and predicts the presence of black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) in newly burned forests in California.
  • The tool aims to aid fire managers in incorporating the protection of these birds into their efforts to revive burned forests.
  • Black-backed woodpeckers thrive in the diverse ecosystem left behind by wildfires, but fire suppression efforts and salvage logging often disturb their habitats.
  • Through the case study of black-backed woodpeckers, the tool aims to illustrate how wildlife conservation and pyrodiversity (the variation in which fires burn landscapes) should be incorporated into fire management efforts around the world.

Imagine a burned forest in California. The charred remains of trees, the soot on the forest floor and the smoke in the air might make it seem like all is lost.

Far from it.

While fires negatively affect many species of animals, they also spawn new and complicated ecosystems with rich biodiversity.

In California, the black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus) are a ubiquitous presence in burned-over forests. The birds, in fact, capitalize on the diverse landscape left behind by the fires; they feed on beetles that infest burnt trees and make nests by drilling holes in dead ones. Their contributions are also significant. Once they are finished, these woodpeckers make way for other species — birds as well as small mammals — that use their nesting sites. Research has shown that these animals then go on to serve important functions such as repopulating the forests, dispersing seeds and keeping a check on insect populations.

A black-backed woodpecker flies through a burned forest in Montana. Image by Jeremy Roberts.

Despite black-backed woodpeckers playing a pivotal role in post-fire regeneration of forests in California, their protection doesn’t often take precedence during fire recovery operations. In a scramble to make rapid decisions on how to better protect and revive burned forests, fire managers and authorities find it difficult to get data on where the birds are. Oftentimes, fire suppression efforts, cutting off of snags and salvage logging (the practice of logging trees in burned forests to minimize economic loss) impact these birds and disturb their habitats.

“In many ecosystems, animals have evolved alongside fire and actually benefit from it,” Andrew Stillman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, told Mongabay in a video interview.

A new online tool, developed by Stillman and his team, aims to help these birds and aid authorities in incorporating wildlife conservation into post-fire management.

The tool maps and predicts the presence of black-backed woodpeckers in forests after fires. Through this data, the tool enables land managers and authorities to identify and estimate areas with a higher abundance of woodpeckers and subsequently avoid those areas for post-fire management efforts. For example, if an area is estimated to have a larger population of birds, authorities can choose to leave that area out for salvage logging in order to save the birds and their habitats.

Stillman worked in partnership with the Joint Fire Science Program of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, the Institute for Bird Populations and the University of California, Los Angeles, to collect the data and develop the tool.

The tool hinges on the concept of pyrodiversity, which is the variation in the way fires burn landscapes, and the relationship that wildlife has with fires. While the tool monitors only black-backed woodpeckers in California, the scientists behind its development say they want it to serve as a case study to illustrate the importance of incorporating pyrodiversity into fire management efforts.

Maps that show the abundance of black-backed woodpeckers in the online tool developed by Andrew Stillman and his team.
Maps that show the abundance of black-backed woodpeckers in the online tool developed by Andrew Stillman and his team.

“Pyrodiversity is very important for wildlife and we need a pathway to adapt our toolbox for biodiversity conservation in the face of forest fire,” Stillman said. “The goal of this tool is to give us the ability to make more informed decisions about wildlife management immediately after fires burn.”

Different animals and birds react differently to fires. A study, co-authored by Stillman and published in the journal Ecological Applications in March 2023, found, for example, that black-backed woodpeckers not only like burned forests, but also need a good mix of different degrees of burn. The study found that the birds were more likely to occupy areas “with greater diversity in burn severity.”

“Adult woodpeckers were placing their nests near the edges of high-severity patches where there’s low-severity and high severity close together,” Stillman said. “We learned that adult woodpeckers forage in areas that burned at high-severity with lots of dead trees, but the juveniles forage and spend time in areas that are low-severity.”

The study also found that the survival of juveniles was much lower if they spend all their time in areas with high-severity burns.

“What we have is a species that requires both high-severity burns with snags and low-severity burns with live trees,” he said. From their findings, Stillman said, they concluded that authorities can manage burned forests to benefit black-backed woodpeckers by prioritizing the retention of areas with a high density of dead trees that are located right next to areas burned at low-severity.

However, the nesting of black-backed woodpeckers after fires is debated among scientists who study the birds. Another study, published in 2019 in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, observed the birds nesting in parts of the forest that burned at high-severity, not necessarily close to patches with live trees.

Stillman said the online tool has been modeled to take into account “multiple facets of pyrodiversity” to make estimations about where the birds might be.

The platform uses data derived from satellite imagery along with information from field surveys to make the predictions. Over 11 years, the Institute for Bird Populations and the USDA Forest Service collected data that gave them a sense of how the woodpeckers are using fires to form their habitats. They also collected data from radio transmitters attached to the birds to track their movements around the burned forests.

“That gave us a view of home range size, and we found that the density of dead trees is a really important factor that determines the size of the home range. This means that we can use snag density to actually estimate the density of home ranges on the landscape,” Stillman said.

A black-backed woodpecker
A study found that black-backed woodpeckers not only like burned forests, but also need a good mix of different degrees of burn. Image by Nick Athanas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In the tool, users are required to input some information based on their needs, such as year of the fire and the location they want to focus on. The tool then runs mathematical models to come up with three maps: one showing woodpecker density in the area, a second map that displays the estimated number of woodpecker pairs living in the area and another one that quantifies the uncertainties in those estimates. “It’s really important for managers to incorporate uncertainty into their decisions,” Stillman said.

While it is built specifically for black-backed woodpeckers in California, Stillman says the model could be adapted for other species in other places.

“The methods that we use, the model we use and the general framework that we are using to engage in adaptive management can be applied to any system anywhere,” he said.

What’s important, he said, is to learn how to start incorporating pyrodiversity to better manage and protect wildlife after fires, especially in the face of increasing temperatures and frequent droughts around the world.

“Fire is a natural part of California’s ecology, and it’s ingrained in the history of that landscape,” Stillman said. “This tool is about ways that we can live with the fire and manage fire in smarter ways.”

Banner image: A black-backed woodpecker in a Parker 2 Fire area in Modoc County, California. Image by Julio Mulero via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Stillman, A. N., Wilkerson, R. L., Kaschube, D. R., Siegel, R. B., Sawyer, S. C., & Tingley, M. W. (2023). Incorporating pyrodiversity into wildlife habitat assessments for rapid post‐fire management: A woodpecker case study. Ecological Applications. doi:10.1002/eap.2853

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