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Avian Ambassadors and Tribal Perspectives: A Bird’s Eye View of Prescribed Fire

Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorous) perches on the branch of a California live oak (Quercus agrifolia). (U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo by Cal Robinson).

Avian Ambassadors and Tribal Perspectives: A Bird’s Eye View of Prescribed Fire

Written by Hilary Clark, Public Affairs Specialist, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station

Birds are our melodic neighbors. They soar above skyscrapers in New York City and nest in coastal redwoods in Northern California.

Their familiar sight and distinctive calls made bird watching a national pastime. In fact, roughly one-third of the U.S. population, or 96 million people, closely observe, feed or photograph birds.

However, our avian companions are declining. According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2022 U.S. State of the Birds Report, the U.S. and Canada have lost an estimated 3 billion breeding birds since the 1970s.

Pacific Southwest Research Station ecologist and tribal liaison Frank Lake wondered how the birds he grew up with in northeastern California were faring. As a Karuk tribal descendant with Yurok family, Lake has a deep connection to the land and the birds that inhabit it. Belted kingfishers, woodpeckers, condors, eagles, and other birds have been part of his ancestors’ way of life for thousands of years. Birds play a role in tribal creation stories, and tribes use feathers to grace regalia and use in traditional ceremonies.

“Indigenous and western knowledge systems can teach us a lot about the significant roles land birds have in our environment. Understanding how fire and other land management practices may affect birds is important for evaluating the conditions of our ecosystems,” Lake said.

A Cooper’s hawk surveys its surroundings from a high perch. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo by Lane Wintermute).

Learning from the Birds

Lake joined forces with research colleague Linda Long, the Klamath Bird Observatory, Karuk Tribal Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Technological University, and others to publish new findings on how life cycles of culturally significant birds could inform the timing of prescribed fire.

For 22 years, the research team studied the molting and breeding seasons of 11 different bird families—woodpeckers, owls, hawks, and other species—in Northern California and southern Oregon. Molting and breeding sap birds’ energy, making them vulnerable to threats, including fire. Molting is a plumage makeover where birds shed old feathers and replace them with new.

“We found, in general, breeding tends to start near the beginning of April in the redwood forests, and later, towards the end of April, in coastal regions and along the Klamath and Trinity rivers,” said Jared Wolfe, a Michigan Technological University assistant professor.

Even though prescribed fire can clear the understory of a forest and enhance wildlife habitat, it should be carefully planned to avoid potential harm to birds during their molting and breeding seasons.

“Counting birds with binoculars in the field allows us to document trends, but with this information we felt limited to writing their obituaries. We wanted to dig deeper,” Klamath Bird Observatory Executive Director John Alexander said.

Alexander and other researchers wanted to know why birds were at a particular location and what they were doing there.

“Our research results provide more precise information about vulnerabilities and threats that can provide guidance and inform the timing of prescribed burns based on birds’ breeding and molting seasons,” he said.

They concluded that cultural burning, which traditionally moves to nature’s rhythm, poses fewer threats to culturally significant birds.

Frank Lake with the Klamath River Singers performing at Reggae on the River demonstration dance. From left to right: Chaley Thom (Karuk), Clarence Hostler (Hupa-Yurok-Karuk), Charlie Thom (Lake’s Karuk grandfather with microphone), Brian Tripp (Karuk), and Frank Lake (USDA photo by Frank Lake)

Benefits of Cultural Burning

Long before colonization, indigenous peoples practiced cultural burning for thousands of years, modifying fire regimes. These low intensity fires promoted healthy forests and enhanced wildlife habitat.

“Fire is medicine to many tribal elders. Fire connects them to the land, and land management policies of fire suppression have, historically, severed that connection,” Lake said.

In his research, Lake incorporates western science and traditional ecological knowledge, defined as a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural and natural resources through relationships between humans and their landscapes. Both are paramount, he believes, for protecting wildlife, including birds. When Lake shares his knowledge with others, he hopes that the information broadens their perceptions of conservation.

That was the case for John Alexander.

Roger’s Creek prescribed burn in June 2023 near Somes Bar, Calif., which was conducted in support of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (USDA photo by Frank Lake)

“I remember sitting with Frank at a picnic table overlooking the Klamath River. He told me ‘Those birds in those bushes where my auntie collected basket materials are important to us. Those individuals are important.” Alexander said.

Before considering Lake’s perspective, Alexander was more concerned about getting fire on the ground, even if it meant sacrificing a few birds. He reasoned that prescribed burns are critical for mitigating hundreds of years of fire suppression, which can lead to devastating wildfires and decline of healthy forests. Healthy forests promote the long-term survival of different bird species.

“Working with the tribes has made me realize how important cultural burning is. Ancient tribal practices should help inform our prescribed burning practices, and our research about culturally important birds further exemplifies that,” Alexander said.

Partnerships to Protect Birds

Alexander is proud of the observatory’s long-term partnership with the Forest Service and former Pacific Southwest Research Station wildlife ecologist CJ Ralph. Together, Alexander, Ralph, and others collected bird data that dates back to the 1980s. Today, that historic data helps inform future bird conservation research.

In 2001, these partnerships got a legal boost. That year President Clinton strengthened the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, requiring relevant federal agencies to consider how their actions impact bird conservation.

Alexander credits that law and the work of partners for inroads in better understanding our avian companions. He cautions, though, that the work is far from done.

“Like birds must adapt to a rapidly changing climate to survive, we must continually learn and adapt our research together to protect birds,” Alexander said.

Alexander serves as a mentor for new researchers in bird conservation. Similarly, Lake is inspiring the next generation of stewards.

“I take young tribal members out to the forest and point out certain birds, explaining their cultural significance and unique life cycles. Both are important to the long-term health of our forests and the birds that depend upon them,” Lake said.

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