There is a growing body of literature covering the responses of bird species to wildland fire events. Our study was unique among these because we investigated the effects of large-scale wildland fires on entire bird communities across multiple vegetation types. We conducted avian point counts during the breeding seasons for two years before and two years after the Cedar and Otay Fires in 2003 in southern California. Our balanced sampling effort took place at two sites, one low-elevation and one high-elevation, each containing replicate stations (burned and unburned) within five vegetation types: chaparral, coastal sage scrub, grassland, oak woodland, and riparian. Although fire caused some degree of change in the vegetation structure at all of our impacted survey points, we found that the post-fire shrub and tree cover was significantly lower in only two of the vegetation types within the low-elevation site, coastal sage scrub and chaparral. We found no significant changes in cover at the high-elevation site. Using univariate and multivariate analyses, we tested whether the fires were associated with a change in bird species diversity, community structure, and the relative abundance of individuals within a species. We found that species diversity changed in only one circumstance: it increased in coastal sage scrub at the low-elevation site. Multivariate analyses revealed significant differences in the post-fire bird community structure in the low-elevation chaparral, low-elevation coastal sage scrub, and the high-elevation grassland communities. Vegetation characteristics altered by fire, such as decreases in shrub and tree cover, influenced the changes we observed in the bird communities. The relative abundance of some species (lazuli bunting [Passerina amoena] and horned lark [Eremophila alpestris]) significantly increased after the fires, while other species declined significantly (Anna's hummingbird [Calypte anna], wrentit [Chamaea fasciata], and bushtit [Psaltriparus minimus]). We detected mixed results for the spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus), which increased in burned chaparral and declined in burned coastal sage scrub within the low-elevation site. We suggest that the observed responses of birds to these fires may be attributed to: (1) the availability of nearby unburned refugia, (2) the continued suitability of post-fire vegetation at the study sites, and (3) the generally high mobility of this taxon.
Additional publication details
Responses in bird communities to wildland fires in southern California