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What constitutes a natural fire regime? Insight from the ecology and distribution of coniferous forest birds in North America


Hutto, Richard L.; Conway, Courtney J.; Saab, Victoria A.; Walters, Jeffrey R. 2008. What constitutes a natural fire regime? Insight from the ecology and distribution of coniferous forest birds in North America. Fire Ecology. 4(2): 115-132.

Bird species that specialize in the use of burned forest conditions can provide insight into the prehistoric fire regimes associated with the forest types that they have occupied over evolutionary time. The nature of their adaptations reflects the specific post-fire conditions that occurred prior to the unnatural influence of humans after European settlement. Specifically, the post-fire conditions, nest site locations, and social systems of two species (Bachman's sparrow [Aimophila aestivalis] and red-cockaded woodpecker [Picoides borealis]) suggest that, prehistorically, a frequent, low-severity fire regime characterized the southeastern pine system in which they evolved. In contrast, the patterns of distribution and abundance for several other bird species (black-backed woodpecker [Picoides arcticus], buff-breasted flycatcher [Empidonax fulvifrons], Lewis' woodpecker [Melanerpes lewis], northern hawk owl [Surnia ulula], and Kirtland's warbler [Dendroica kirtlandii]) suggest that severe fire has been an important component of the fire regimes with which they evolved. Patterns of habitat use by the latter species indicate that severe fires are important components not only of higher-elevation and high-latitude conifer forest types, which are known to be dominated by such fires, but also of mid-elevation and even low-elevation conifer forest types that are not normally assumed to have had high-severity fire as an integral part of their natural fire regimes. Because plant and animal adaptations can serve as reliable sources of information about what constitutes a natural fire regime, it might be wise to supplement traditional historical methods with careful consideration of information related to plant and animal adaptations when attempting to restore what are thought to be natural fire regimes.

Keywords: bird distribution, coniferous forest, historical range of variability, low-severity fire, natural fire regime, post-fire conditions, severe fire


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Title: RMRS Other Publications: What constitutes a natural fire regime? Insight from the ecology and distribution of coniferous forest birds in North America
Electronic Publish Date: February 2, 2009
Last Update:
February 2, 2009

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