Action: Use prescribed burning on deciduous forests
Key messagesRead our guidance on Key messages before continuing
- Of four studies found, one paired sites study from the USA found that bird species richness was similar in burned and unburned aspen forests, although there were significant changes in the relative abundances of some species. A replicated, controlled study in the USA found no evidence for changes in community composition in oak and hickory forests following burning.
- A replicated controlled trial from the USA found no differences in wood thrush nest survival in burned compared to unburned areas. Another replicated controlled trial from the USA found a reduction in the number of black-chinned hummingbird nests following fuel reduction treatments that included burning.
Controlled burning of accumulated litter (fuel reduction) may reduce the risk of hotter, more extensive and potentially more damaging, wildfires in temperate woodland habitats (e.g. Wooller & Brooker 1980). Periodic prescribed burns may also be used to reinstate/restore ecosystem processes in forests historically subject to occasional wildfires but where active fire suppression has occurred, often over many decades. Changes likely to occur with burning include a reduction in hardwood understorey vegetation and an increase in grasses and herbaceous vegetation. Other habitat modifications or interventions may be undertaken in combination with fire, such as thinning trees or the removal of mid- and understorey vegetation. Sometimes conflicts arise as to conservation priorities and possible detrimental effects on non-target species or communities.
Wooller, R.D. & Brooker, K.S., 1980. The effects of controlled burning on some birds of the understorey in karri forest. Emu, 80, pp.165–166.
Supporting evidence from individual studies
A paired site comparison study in 1994-1995 in Bridger-Teton National Forest Wyoming, USA (Dieni & Anderson 1999), found no difference in average bird species richness in burned compared to unburned forest sites. There were significantly higher relative abundances of mountain bluebird Sialia currucoides and pine siskin Carduelis pinus in burned than unburned sites. Six areas of trembling aspen Populus tremuloides-dominated forest (38-407 ha) were burned during 1988-1993 and paired with similar-sized unburned areas for comparison.
A replicated, controlled study in Wayne National Forest and Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest, Ohio, USA (Artman et al. 2001), found that overall, there were no differences in breeding bird community composition in areas of forest under early spring burning compared to unburned areas, although species responses varied. Four areas dominated by oak Quercus spp. and hickory Carya spp. were each divided into three treatment units of 20-30 ha: unburned; burned 4-years in a row (1996-1999); and burned twice (1996 and 1999). Burning reduced habitat suitability for ground- and low-shrub nesting birds: some species declined in response to repeated burning. Conditions for ground- and aerial-foraging species appeared improved by burning.
A replicated controlled study in 1995-1999 at four mixed-oak Quecus spp. forest sites in Ohio, USA (Artman & Downhower 2003), found there were no significant differences in wood thrush Hylocichla mustelina nest survival rates in burned plots (of 20-35 ha), compared to unburned ones. Within burn plots, nests were situated more frequently in areas subject to low or moderate burn intensity and less so high intensity areas. Nest concealment (i.e. percentage overhead and side cover) was similar in burned and unburned plots but nests were located significantly higher, and in taller and larger-stemmed trees and shrubs in burned than unburned areas.
A replicated, controlled study in riparian forest along the Middle Rio Grande, New Mexico, USA, in 2002-2004 (Smith et al. 2009), found a 62% reduction in the number of black-chinned hummingbird Archilochus alexandri nests (from 42 to 16) on two sites where exotic shrubs and woody debris were cut and burned before herbicide was applied to the root crowns of exotic species. This compared with 8-18% increases at sites with fuel reduction treatments that did not involve burning. These results are discussed in more detail in ‘Control/remove understorey and midstorey vegetation’ and ‘Plant native shrubs following fuel reduction’.
- Dieni J.S. & Anderson S.H. (1999) Effects of recent burning on breeding bird community structure in aspen forests. Journal of Field Ornithology, 70, 491-503
- Artman V.L., Sutherland E.K. & Downhower J.F. (2001) Prescribed burning to restore mixed-oak communities in southern Ohio: effects on breeding-bird populations. Conservation Biology, 15, 1423-1434
- Artman V.L. & Downhower J.F. (2003) Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) nesting ecology in relation to prescribed burning of mixed-oak forest in Ohio. The Auk, 120, 874-882
- Smith D.M., Finch D.M. & Hawksworth D.L. (2009) Black-chinned hummingbird nest-site selection and nest survival in response to fuel reduction in a southwestern riparian forest. The Condor, 111, 641-652