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Death is an important part of life

As we learn more about how nature really works, we often find that our intuitive notions about “good” and “bad” are just plain wrong.

One example is our historical attitude toward forest fires. Today’s forestry experts, whether from the environmental community or timber industry, agree that 150 years of overzealous fire suppression is the main reason we now experience so many large-scale, severe fires in the west. We prevented the relatively frequent, low-intensity fires that, for thousands of years, burned underbrush and small trees and kept the Sierra forests open and relatively fire-resistant. Now, when climate conditions are right, we see fires that kill nearly all of the trees over many acres.

These expanses of charred standing dead trees bring words like “catastrophic” and “tragic” to mind. However, if we look a little closer we find that, once again, our reaction may be too simplistic.



For example, let’s take a look at how birds respond to “stand-replacing” fires. We know these newly open areas experience a burst of growth of plants that benefit deer, rodents and their predators. However, it is the standing dead trees, called snags, that attract many of the birds.

Almost immediately after the fire cools, wood-boring insects arrive to feast on the dead wood. Some insects even have infrared sensors that can detect a new burn from 100 miles away! They lay eggs in the burned trees and the larvae begin boring into the wood. That’s when the woodpeckers arrive for an all-you-can-eat banquet. You can find up to nine different species of woodpeckers feeding in these burned areas in the Sierra. Of these, one true burn specialist is the black-backed woodpecker. As the name implies, this handsome bird alters the common woodpecker pattern of black-and-white with its all-black back (perhaps to better camouflage it against the burned trunks). Each one can consume more than 13,000 bark beetle larvae in a single year.




Another early arrival to the burn is the olive-sided flycatcher. However, it shows up for flying insects rather than wood-borers. Perching conspicuously on the tops of large snags, they use their remarkable speed and agility to dart out and pluck an unlucky bug from mid-air. This nattily attired bird (its olive sides make it appear to be wearing a vest) is notorious for its distinctive whistled song that sounds like an order for a round of drinks: “Quick, THREE, beers!” Unfortunately, olive-sided flycatchers are in steady, accelerating and long-term decline throughout their breeding range. Two-thirds of these birds have disappeared since 1966, and their numbers continue to fall by over 3 percent per year.

Over time, trees decay and woodpeckers excavate cavities in which to raise their young. Other cavity-nesting birds unable to carve their own homes, like mountain bluebirds, will ultimately use these holes for their nests.

These areas, which look so dead to us, are anything but. Extensive research by scientists like Richard Hutto, Martin Raphael and Elaine Caton has consistently showed that:

Burns support dozens of species – as many or more species than are found in adjacent forested areas.

Birds require concentrated stands of the largest snags.

Salvage logging that removes all or nearly all of the large trees makes the area unsuitable for these birds.

Please don’t misunderstand. None of us wants to see large portions of our forests burned at this intensity. We must work our way back to a more natural fire regimen. However, the next time you see one of these burned forests, remember: our first reaction is often flawed. Nature is wonderful, complex and unlikely to let anything go to waste.

Ed Pandolfino is a member of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.


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