How Wildfires Boosted by Climate Change Threaten Birds

While wildfires are natural parts of many landscapes in North America, today's megafires pose new challenges to birds and people.

Wildfire is a key part of the landscape across major habitats in North America, including the Great Plains, the sagebrush steppe, and Western forests. Historically, fires have acted to maintain a diversity of habitats and, therefore, bird diversity, but climate change brings with it the potential of larger, more destructive megafires than what birds and ecosystems have evolved with. 

Large fires are a natural part of many ecosystems in North America. Indeed, many bird species have adapted to natural fires. They can generally fly away from active blazes and return when fires die down, and wildfires can open up forests and allow new species to move in. However, their respiratory systems may be more prone to smoke than mammals, and it is unclear how prolonged periods of heavy smoke from megafires impact birds.

For example, wildfires in the West pose a major threat to the sagebrush steppe, home to the Greater Sage-Grouse, more than 350 other species of wildlife, and countless communities. As invasive cheatgrass encroaches on sagebrush, the flammable grass burns readily, and fires spread to the remaining sagebrush. This is bad news for sagebrush, which can take 20 years to reach the cover needed for sage-grouse to reproduce. Climate change, coupled with other factors like a century of fire-suppression, continues to make conditions ripe for larger wildfires to rage, particularly across the Western states. Even the habitats adapted to fire will be stressed by today's new climate change-fueled megafires. As such, Audubon scientists have identified wildfires as one of several climate-related threats to birds in North America.

Climate change and fires

The magnitude and frequency of more recent megafire wildfires, though, is far outside of the natural regime. Four of California’s five biggest wildfires in history started in August 2020, and the state has barely gotten into its 2020 fire season – typically late September to November. Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, which see more rainfall than California and have a much less pronounced ‘fire season,’ have consistently seen worrisome blazes over the last several years. As of September 2020, 7 million acres have already burned in the U.S. this year, surpassing the yearly average well ahead of time. The simple truth to these megafires is a multi-prong attack directly related to anthropogenic climate change. Record hot temperatures are causing vegetation to dry out. The West is also seeing a decline in rainfall, with droughts projected to happen more frequently due to climate change. Years of fire suppression in Western forests have led to dangerous levels of fuel loads. Together, heat, drought, and fuel build-up form the perfect recipe for fire weather – all it takes is a small spark.

What’s next?

Wildfires are increasing in intensity, size, and frequency due to hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change. At least 36 people have been killed since late August 2020, millions of dollars of damage has yet to be tallied, and hundreds of birds are dropping from the sky in the Southwest as they may have been forced from a flyway filled with smoke into an intense cold snap (which may also be climate change-related).

How to keep destructive fires at bay? 

1) Reduce our carbon footprint, and quickly. 

2) Forest management in the form of prescribed burning or thinnings to clear fuel loads and return to a more natural fire regime.

Scientists point out that our window to act to curb emissions is narrowing. A number of exciting green technologies are available; we just need the right policies in place to drive these changes on a large scale. In the meantime, fire season in the West corresponds to a time when birds have finished breeding and many are migrating south for the winter. As they undertake this remarkable and strenuous activity, two resources we can provide to support them especially during fire season are food and clean water.  It’s undeniable that the climate is changing, and unfortunately, the especially bad wildfire season of 2020 is not magically going to get better next year. As long as climate change continues on its trajectory, what we see may be worse in the coming years if we don’t take action to curb its root causes.