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How Wildfires Affect Birds

Wildfires are devastating in so many ways. When hundreds of acres burn, not only is the landscape ravaged but people’s lives are often changed forever.

At the moment in California, 13,000 people have been given evacuation orders as 20 or so wildfires rage across the drought-stricken land. While people are the main focus of the devastation (as they should be), animals are also victims of the desolation.

What happens to all the birds that live in or around the wildfires that engulf hundreds of square miles every year? Let’s find out.

Where do birds going during a fire?

The exact behavior of birds during a wildfire is a little unclear. As far as I found, no scientific studies have been done in conjunction with wildfires to monitor precisely how birds react to an approaching wildfire.

Anecdotal evidence says that healthy birds will move away from the fire. Eyewitness accounts have most birds flying away from the fire before they’re put in harm’s way. The reason? Even though fires are tragedies for us, birds and animals have dealt with these natural phenomenons for millennium.

Ailing birds and nestlings probably don’t fair as well. Birds are unable to carry their young, so if there’s a nest in the path of a raging fire, it’s likely it will be lost.

How do birds cope with the aftermath of wildfires?

Image by Brenda Cacciatore
Image by Brenda Cacciatore

As anyone who’s ever been a victim of a wildfire can attest, the issues don’t end when the flames are finally smothered. Miles and miles of habitat are destroyed, and birds need to find new places to call home.

With the move to new locations, birds will have to deal with different predators, different landscapes, and finding new food sources. Birds are very resilient, so the challenges aren’t considered a death sentence.

Despite the clear downsides of wildfires, sometimes fires can also be beneficial to birds. Natural fires destroy trees, but they also help promote the regeneration of healthy new forests since certain coniferous trees only germinate with fires.

Kirtland's Warbler. Image by William H. Majoros
Kirtland’s Warbler. Image by William H. Majoros

For example, jack pines are dependent on fire, and the endangered Kirtland’s warbler is dependent on areas with jack pine trees. Due to fire suppression efforts in areas with jack pines, young pines for which Kirtland’s warblers use to nest are no longer as widespread. Ironically, for species like the Kirtland’s warbler, the more fires the better.

In the end, the effect a fire has on wildlife depends on a variety of factors, including the location, bird species, and severity of the fire. It must also be noted that the most beneficial wildfires are those started naturally, so we encourage you to do your due diligence in preventing wildfires.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.