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Community project finds bird populations resilient amid forest thinning and prescribed fire

Lewis's Woodpecker is one of the species observed in the community project
Lewis's Woodpecker is one of the species observed in the community project

Across the West, forest managers are trying to combat the increased risk of forest fire, with overgrown forests and a warming climate.

Some conservationists object to thinning and prescribed fire because of the impact on bird species, but a recent community monitoring project found some evidence that bird populations can be resilient.

For five years, community volunteers from an Audubon Society chapter in Pagosa Springs, southern Colorado, monitored bird communities in a number of sites in forests dominated by ponderosa pine.

During a webinar presenting the results on May 7, Keith Bruno, a community naturalist, said prescribed fire and thinning initially had a big impact on birds.

"Immediately we saw lower numbers in any of those ground brush foraging species," he said. "And any of the species that were nesting close to the ground, certainly. So we have seen deleterious effects right off the bat."

However, as some trees regrew, like Gambel oaks that are home to insects, bird populations started to bounce back.

"We have seen resilience and some ability to recover, as those pieces are allowed to breathe and returned to the landscape," said Bruno.

Herb Grover, vice president of that chapter, the Weminuche Audubon Society, says preventing fire matters

"There isn't anything that we've revealed in our dataset that would say that the Forest Service shouldn't be doing these treatments, particularly in our environment," he said.

He says local wildfires have threatened key water supplies, and severely impacted parts of the pine forest.

However, he did say that dead trees, or snags, are key nesting sites and that he had emphasized to the U.S. Forest Service the importance of protecting those snags, even as the agency conducts thinning.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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