FOREST FIRES & EFFECTS ON WILDLIFE
The total effects of wild forest fires upon the wildlife that typically inhabit those areas have yet to be fully determined. It may take years, possibly many years, to survey the extent of the damage and its effects both on the forests themselves and the wildlife. It is clear, though, that the fires have negatively affected the wildlife much as it has the human populations in those same areas. Humans, being the highly adaptive creatures they are, are more likely better able to deal with such catastrophes than their wildlife neighbors. We live in supportive communities, have government and support organizations to help us through such crises, have insurance that enables us to rebuild, and, can ultimately relocate if events force such moves. Wildlife have none of those advantages.
Wildlife experiences a sense of terror and anxiety when confronted with forest wildfires. Like humans, they flee to escape destruction. In the current Rodeo-Chedeski fire in the White Mountains, observers have seen and videotaped large numbers of wildlife on the move away from the fires. Large herds of mixed animals, such as elk and deer, along with coyotes, foxes, javelina, badgers, etc. have fled to safer areas. Some area lifetime residents who observed this phenomena expressed amazement as to the sheer numbers and variety of species they saw. Some said they had no idea there was that much wildlife in the area. What is sure, however, is that these animals have lost their natural territories and will have a very difficult time establishing themselves in new territories and habitats.
This is true wherever large forest fires occur. In Southern Arizona we recently experienced the Walker fire near Nogales, the fires near Elgin and Fort Huachuca, the Bullock fire in the Santa Catalina's and now, in the Rodeo-Chedeski fire of the White Mountains. Wildlife in all those areas have been severely affected. As the Bullock fire grew, residents from Tucson began calling to ask us what species of birds they were beginning to see at their feeders that they did not recognize. Reports of mountain species such as Stellar's and Grey-breasted jays, Western tanagers, Red crossbills, Clark's nutcrackers, pine siskins, Black-headed and Evening grosbeaks began showing up at many backyard feeding stations and birdbaths.
Most of the species that have been forced out of their natural habitats will not be able to return to those same familiar habitats. In the places where the fires were the hottest and the damage the most extensive, it will take many years, perhaps generations, for the habitat to return to normal. It remains unknown how well the wildlife will be able to adapt to new circumstances and habitats. Perhaps some of the more adaptable species will be able to recover and survive but certainly some of the less adaptable species will not make it.
Guy Atchley, news anchor for KGUN channel 9, during the Bullock fire, invited me onto his program to talk about how we can help provide food, water, and habitat for birds that fled the mountain fire. Because of the intensity of the fire, much of the Catalina's habitat will remain unsuitable for a long time and we may see mountain species in the valley for some time.
Some experts are predicting that it will take perhaps a hundred years or more, before the forests will return to normal conditions. When forest fires are at their hottest, even all the organic matter (seeds of life) in the topsoils are destroyed. The resulting problems of erosion will have to dealt with long before there is any chance of regrowth of vegetation.
Many animals and birds undoubtedly died in the fires. If you have experienced seeing any unfamiliar birds in your backyard, consider it a privilege to provide food and water for these unusually stressed birds. If your backyard also provides habitat for their needs, they may remain for some time. There are many obstacles for birds such as these to overcome. Short term survival depends upon finding food and water quickly. Shelter in the form of various types of vegetation will provide places for roosting, resting, and preening. Many of these species will have to learn about the predators which inhabit their new areas. New territories will have to be established and this always proves to be a struggle for birds in new environments. In the longer term, birds that continue to be stressed may not exhibit mating and courtship behavior and breeding may be limited or nonexistent. These types of conditions could spell disaster for entire populations of birds.
Nevertheless, there is good reason to be hopeful and optimistic, too. Living in the sunbelt region, we know that many escaped pet birds are able to survive in the wild when they can find food, water, shelter and learn about predators. Many of our customers have observed exotic finches, canaries, and various parrots (all with the distinct disadvantage of being captive born and raised) at their backyard feeding stations. Every year, it seems, we see some such birds at our feeders and birdbaths. We have noticed that parakeets (budgerigars) will learn to flock with flocks of finches (some even become alpha leaders in the flock!). Needless to say, the captive-bred birds that find themselves in the wild usually do not live as long as when in captivity. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the mountain dwelling birds that have fled their native forest habitats.
In the event you do see any such birds in your yard, consider yourself lucky to be in a position to provide for their basic needs as best as you can. If you have questions about particular birds you notice that are not the familiar guests at your feeding station, please give us a call and perhaps we can be of some help to you and your guests.