Aspen Bibliography

Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in northern Rocky Mountain (U.S.A.) conifer forests


R.L. Hutto

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Conservation Biology





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During the two breeding seasons immediately following the numerous and widespread fires of 1988, I estimated bird community composition in each of 34 burned-forest sites in western Montana and northern Wyoming. I detected an average of 45 species per site and a total of 87 species in the sites combined. A comppilation of these data with bird-count data from more than 200 additional studies conducted across 15 major vegetation cover types in the northern Rocky Mountain region showed that 15 bird species are generally more abundant in early post-fire communities than in any other major cover type occurring in the northern Rockies. One bird species (Black-backed Woodpecker, Picoides arcticus) seems to be nearly restricted in its habitat distribution to standing dead forests created by stand-replacement fires. Bird communities in recently burned forests are different in composition from those that characterize other Rocky Mountain cover types (including early-successional clearcuts) primarily because members of three feeding guilds are especially abundant therein: woodpeckers, flycatchers, and seedeaters. Standing, fire-killed trees provided nest sites for nearly two-thirds of 31 species that were found nesting in the burned sites. Broken-top snags and standing dead aspens were used as nest sites for cavity-nesting species significantly more often than expected on the basis of their relative abundance. Moreover, because nearly all of the broken-top snags that were used were present before the fire, forest conditions prior to a fire (especially the presence of snags) may be important in determining the suitability of a site to cavity-nesting birds after a fire. For bird species that were relatively abundant in or relatively restricted to burned forests, stand-replacement fires may be necessary for long-term maintenance of their populations. Unfortunately, the current fire policy of public land-management agencies does not encourage maintenance of stand-replacement fire regimes, which may be necessary for the creation of conditions needed by the most fire-dependent bird species. In addition, salvage cutting may reduce the suitability of burned-forest habitat for birds by removing the most important element—standing, fire-killed trees–needed for feeding, nesting, or both by the majority of bird species that used burned forests.