This woodpecker loves a good wildfire, but megafires? Not so much

August 7, 2019, 12:40 p.m.
black-backed woodpecker on a tree
Photo: FotoRequest/Shutterstock

The black-backed woodpecker thrives in the charred remains of forests left by wildfires.

The birds live in the western U.S., gravitating toward recently burned forests. There, they forage on the larvae of wood-boring beetles that take over dead and dying trees after fires and make nests in the cavities of burned trees.

Although these woodpeckers may not seem selective about where they put down roots, they are, in fact, very picky. They prefer to build their homes near the edges of burned patches, but these edges are getting more difficult to find as wildfires become larger and more extreme.

Researchers recently studied black-backed woodpeckers and how they selected nest sites in burned forests in northern California. They located and monitored more than 100 nests over eight years and found that the birds strongly preferred to make their homes in burned-out stands of trees. But they chose the edges that were usually within 550 yards (500 meters) of areas with living trees.

"We didn't expect to find these woodpeckers nesting so close to edges," says study co-author Andrew Stillman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, in a news release. Stillman worked with a research team from The Institute for Bird Populations and the U.S. Forest Service.

The researchers believe the nearby living trees give young fledglings a safe space to hide from predators while adults are away.

"If you're a fledgling woodpecker, the open and exposed severely burned forests are a dangerous place," Stillman told Earther. "However, these areas also have the most food. When nests occur near edges, fledglings can stay safe in the live trees while adults forage in dead trees nearby."

Threatening habitat diversity

Maybe even more important, the findings, published in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications, also found that these woodpeckers need access to a variety of habitats after a fire. This "pyrodiversity" includes burned patches of different ages, sizes and severity.

But climate change is spurring an increase in mega-fires that burn faster and hotter and more uniformly. These fires leave fewer of the edges where black-backed woodpeckers prefer to nest.

"The thing about pyrodiversity is that we expect it to decrease," says Dr. Morgan Tingley of the University of Connecticut and co-author of the paper. "Every year we see more 'mega-fires,' and these fires are quite homogenous in their structure, leading to low pyrodiversity. So even though the future is expected to hold more fire in western forests, the outlook may not even be good for fire-loving species."