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Breeding bird response to season of burn in an upland hardwood forest

Greenberg, Cathryn H., Keyser, Tara L., McNab, W. Henry, Scott, Patrick
Forest ecology and management 2019 v.449 pp. 117442
breeding, burning, canopy, community structure, growing season, hardwood forests, highlands, overstory, plant litter, shrubs, species richness, trees, wildlife, wildlife habitats, woodpeckers
Upland hardwood forest managers are increasingly burning during the growing-season in hopes of improving wildlife habitat and attaining or accelerating other restoration goals, highlighting the need for research addressing how season of burning affects wildlife, including breeding birds. We used 1-ha strip transects in nine units before (2011) and after (2013–2016) treatments to experimentally assess how breeding birds respond to early growing-season (26 April 2013; GSB) and dormant-season (5 March 2014; DSB) burns, and controls (C). Burn effects on forest structure were minor and transitory, regardless of burn season. Burns did not affect overstory or midstory tree basal area or density; shrub cover did not significantly differ among treatments, but within GSB and DSB it decreased for 1–2 years post-burn. A trend of reduced leaf litter depth immediately following both burn treatments was apparent, and recovery was rapid. Percent canopy cover decreased slightly in GSB within four years post-burn. Total bird species richness and density did not differ among treatments or years, and no treatment × year interaction effects were detected. A treatment effect was detected for one of the 10 species tested; Red-bellied woodpecker density was greater in GSB than C in 2013 and 2015. No treatment × year interaction effect was detected for any tested species. Density of birds within the tree-, cavity-, and shrub and midstory-nesting guilds were not detectably affected by either burn treatment, but ground-nester density was lower in GSB and DSB than C in 2014. Our results indicate that single, low-intensity burns, regardless of burn season, are not an effective tool in creating suitable forest structure for disturbance-dependent breeding bird species, or changing breeding bird community composition. In the short-term, substantial forest overstory reduction by timber harvests or high-severity burns will likely be required to improve forest conditions for disturbance-dependent species, and to increase species richness and abundance of breeding birds.