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I'm interested in birds' behavior during large forest fires. Do they fly away as soon as they smell smoke, or wait until seeing fire itself? Do they fly away in flocks, or individually? Do they ever try to return to the area later, or just abandon it for good?

Interested mostly in average forest birds like jays, cardinals, finches, etc.

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The exact behaviour of birds during a wildfire is unclear and there is little scientific evidence on their exact behaviour. Anecdotal notes from eye witness observations indicate that healthy birds fly away from the affected area before they are in danger. Birds that are unable to fly or move out of danger from the fire such as chicks in nest and indisposed birds are likely to die. Different species are likely to react differently to fire, species that flock normally will probably flock together as they fly and species that are more solitary are not likely to flock. Most fires happen in late summer and fall, just after the breeding season for most birds and during their migration, meaning they can escape the area. If the fire is very widespread, the birds may not be able to find appropriate shelter and food and would likely die as a result.

Wildfires are a natural phenomenon and birds have evolved to adapt strategies to deal with them. Some birds benefit from wildfires as they are a normal part of ecological succession.

Ecological succession is the gradual process by which ecosystems change and develop over time in response to a disturbance or colonization of new habitat.

Fire essentially creates a new habitat in which not all the same birds will use. Blue Jays prefer forests, but if a wildfire burns a forest, it will likely become a shrubby field afterwards and may take years to regrow into a forest. The Blue Jays will not likely return in large numbers until the habitat is a forest again.

A remarkable bird that is dependent on forest fires is the Kirtland’s Warbler. They breed in Jack Pine forests that are a certain height, once the forests mature; the habitat is no longer suitable. The jack pines themselves only release their seeds from cones in hot fires as they are serotinous and only open when exposed to intense heat, greater than or equal to 50 °C, the typical case is in a fire. The wildfires then create a succession cycle to always have suitable habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler. Fire suppression of forests by humans has been listed as one of the reasons that led to large declines of this species.

Additional reading:

How Wildfires affects Birds?

Jack Pine Information

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting that forest fires usually happen around the migratory season for birds. And the Jack Pine / Warbler relationship is fascinating. How would the seeds laying on the ground survive the fire itself? Does the Warbler eat the seeds and leave? $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Sep 22 '17 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ The seeds are not fire-resistant, but fire adapted. The Jack Pine cones have a waxy coat that protects them from being burned outright. The Jack-Pine cone can survive temperatures of 800F for 5 minutes. The heat melts the wax which allows the cone to open up, the seeds are not all released right away and there is a time period until they drop. They are adapted to drop after the fire has left the area, removing competing plants and putting nutrients in the soil. The Kirtland's Warbler does not eat seeds, only insects and berries, it relies on fires to regenerate new forest that it nests within. $\endgroup$ – JC11 Sep 25 '17 at 14:23

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