To Flee or Not to Flee: Do Avian Chaparral Specialists Escape Wildfire by Flying to Adjacent Unburned Areas?

    Author Name(s)

    Ariana Cortez, David Morales, Carlin Riley

    Faculty Advisor(s)

    Allison Alvarado


    Consecutive years of severe drought has recently led to unprecedented and devastating large fires, including in the chaparral habitat of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The population-level response by wildlife to large fire events has not been well-studied. For birds, in particular, it is often assumed that species can fly to safety. The local news media has made unsupported claims that birds occupying the chaparral habitat likely escape incineration and death by flying to unburned areas immediately surrounding the fire. If so, one would predict that hundreds of additional birds would be observed in adjacent unburned areas following a large fire event. For our study, we utilize data collected through citizen science to test the hypothesis that there was an influx in abundance of chaparral species in adjacent unburned areas following the Thomas Fire that occurred in December 2017. The Christmas Bird Count occurs each year, typically in mid- to late-December or early January, and these systematic surveys adhere to well-defined protocols. We make comparisons across years to investigate a deviation in bird abundance immediately after the fire in 2017 from baseline numbers in pre- and post-fire years. We found some evidence of slight increases for some species at survey locations adjacent to the most heavily burned areas; however, those slight increases were not as high as we predicted. Although some birds may successfully flee, we found little evidence to support media claims that large numbers of birds escape incineration. This has implications for conservation and management strategies of wild birds across the west, since it is predicted that raging wildfires will continue as a result of climate change.



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