Birds of Colombia Face Threats from Widespread Wildfires

Recent wildfires in Colombia left a significant impact on vulnerable ecosystems like páramos. But what effect do they have on endangered bird species?
Santa Marta Parakeet. Photo: Christoph Moning/iNaturalist (CC BY)
Subtropical Doradito has its natural habitats in subtropical or tropical moist shrubland and swamps. Photo: David Monroy R/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)
Bearded Tachurí, a grassland specialist species with most fire alerts within its range. Photo: Nina Wenóli/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)
Rusty-headed Spinetail, a near-threatened Santa Marta endemic from montane forests with the most fire alerts per square km. Photo: Oleg Rozhko/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND)
Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant is a species of bird in the family Tyrannidae (tyrants). It is endemic to Colombia. Photo: Upupamartin/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND)
Ganso del Orinoco. Photo: Niels Poul Dreyer/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)
Tapaculo ratón. Photo: Cullen Hanks/iNaturalist (CC BY)
Santa Marta Screech-Owl is only found in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Photo: Juan Jose Arango/VWPics/Alamy
Reinita de Santa Marta. Photo: Oleg Rozhko/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND)
The Perijá Metaltail is an endangered species of hummingbird, only found in Colombia and Venezuela. Photo: Ryan Shaw/iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)

(Scroll through above to see Colombia's top 10 most endangered species.) 

As a passionate birder and conservation biologist from Colombia, witnessing my country’s recent spate of wildfires has been heartbreaking. While media coverage understandably focuses on the immediate human impacts—property loss, damaged crops, and compromised air quality—, particularly near major cities such as Bogotá and Bucaramanga, there's a vital aspect of this crisis that often goes overlooked: the impacts on birds, one of our country’s most valuable assets.

Colombia's diverse ecosystems are home to the largest avifauna in the world, with 1969 species, 294 of which are of conservation concern due to their threatened status or restricted ranges. As fires ravage the landscapes, these birds face habitat loss, reproductive decline, and direct mortality, exacerbating the challenges they already confront in an increasingly unstable environment.

Fire alerts in Colombia from January 1st, 2024 to February 5th, 2024 from NRT VIIRS products NOAA-20, NOAA-21, and Suomi NPP. Source: NASA FIRMS
Closeup to the Santa Marta and Perijá Mountains. Stronger shades of red indicate overlapping fire alerts, while the size of dots is not related to fire size. Source: NASA FIRMS

Using data from NOAA's VIIRS sensors and area of habitat models , we can gain insights into the potential impact of recent wildfires on Colombian birds. Alarmingly, between January 1st and Feb 5th alone, over 64,000 fire alerts of nominal or high confidence were detected in Colombia, with 164 threatened bird species experiencing more than 100 alerts within their ranges. Correcting for range size, among the most exposed birds are seven montane forest Santa Marta and Perijá Mountain endemics, emblematic species already on the decline according to the IUCN Red List. In the Eastern Llanos grasslands, the Bearded Tachuri (brevipennis race) stands out, accounting for a staggering 55% of all fire alerts in the country within its range in 2024.

There is little research in on the specific responses and impacts of fires on bird populations in neotropical areas. However, we know that habitat loss is a major threat to most species on decline so by guaranteeing habitat recovery we can be reasonably confident that we will be on track to recover impacted populations. Most fires in Colombia are small , so as long as refuges of natural habitat remain after fires, burned areas may bounce back quickly thanks partly to seed dispersal from birds and resilient seedbanks. Monitoring through standardized protocols as well as through community science initiatives such as Christmas Bird Counts and eBird can help scientists to establish how recovery is progressing and if further management actions are needed.

Communities can help in the recovery of burned areas in multiple ways, for example by making their homes and farms bird-friendly, joining scientifically guided planting campaigns and even just by birding in burned areas wherever is safe, for people and the environment, to do so. On the other hand, authorities need to plan for future fires by increasing the capacity of local communities to manage fires as part of their farmland activities, establishing clear firefighting protocols and providing the necessary funds for their implementation, and enforcing policies to prohibit real estate developments and agricultural or forestry usage of burned areas. Under climate change, more severe and frequent droughts and consequently wildfires are expected. Protection of natural habitat, restoration of impacted areas, management of farmlands, and monitoring will be key to ensure we help species adapt to a new climate reality.