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Woodpecker behavior can guide post-wildfire management

Climate change has recently increased the frequency and severity of forest fires in different parts of the world, and post-fire management has become crucial for restoring burned forests and safeguarding various ecosystems. 

By taking as a case study the black-backed woodpecker – a species of bird that seems to thrive in areas devastated by wildfires – a team of scientists led by Cornell University has devised a new tool which factors how fires burn into forest management decisions in an attempt to turn science into action for wildlife conservation.

“Wildfire is like a 10,000-piece puzzle, and climate change is rearranging the pieces,” said lead author Andrew Stillman, a postdoctoral fellow in Applied Ecology at Cornell. “Gigantic, severe fires are becoming the new norm in California due to drought, longer burn seasons, and dense forests. But birds do really well in landscapes that are ‘pyro diverse’ – areas where fire results in uneven patches burned at high, medium, and low severity.”

Black-backed woodpeckers love pyrodiversity, often preferring to build their nests in recently burned areas after high severity fires. However, they also like to be close to regions that burned at low intensity, where their offspring can hide from predators among living trees which still provide some cover. Thus, since these birds appear to be uniquely sensitive to the removal of trees after fires, forest managers should use information on their habitat preferences to guide their post-fire planning.

After wildfires, forest managers face difficult challenges in deciding how to properly protect and restore burned areas while incorporating the needs of both humans and wildlife. Often there is not enough time to survey wildlife in burned regions, so choosing where to invest in wildlife conservation is not easy. To address this problem, the Cornell researchers developed an online tool to predict the abundance of black-backed woodpeckers after wildfires by incorporation data on the value of pyrodiversity.

“The tool we’ve created uses data from 11 years of surveys to predict where woodpeckers could be found in the greatest numbers using data available within months after a fire burns. The birds move in to take advantage of a boom in juicy beetle larvae in the burned trees,” Stillman explained.

This online tool uses a variety of information, starting with satellite-based data of burn severity which forest managers can upload. This data is then used to assess pyrodiversity based on how much forest canopy has been lost, while integrating the results with other factors, including woodpecker home ranges, vegetation type, longitude, elevation, and years since a fire burned. 

According to the experts, this tool can save time and effort after wildfires for forest managers, conservationists, and private landowners to choose an appropriate path of action that would take into account wildlife conservation.

“A burned forest is a unique, incredible, and complicated ecosystem that bursts with new life. At first you think everything is dead. The ground is ash. The trees are black. But as you start walking around, you find that the place is alive. It’s not dead, just changed,” Stillman concluded.

The study is published in the journal Ecological Applications.

image Credit: Jeremy Roberts,


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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