Short-term effects of fire and other fuel reduction treatments on breeding birds in a Southern Appalachian upland hardwood forest
We compared the effects of 3 fuel reduction techniques and a control on breeding birds during 2001–2005 using 50-m point counts. Four experimental units, each .14 ha, were contained within each of 3 replicate blocks at the Green River Game Land, Polk County, North Carolina, USA. Treatments were 1) prescribed burn, 2) mechanical understory reduction (chainsaw-felling of shrubs and small trees), 3) mechanical + burn, and 4) controls. We conducted mechanical treatments in winter 2001–2002 and prescribed burns in spring 2003. Tall shrub cover was substantially reduced in all treatments compared to controls. Tree mortality and canopy openness was highest in the mechanical + burn treatment after burning, likely due to higher fuel loading and hotter burns; tree mortality increased with time. Many bird species did not detectably decrease or increase in response to treatments. Species richness, total bird density, and some species, including indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) and eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), increased in the mechanical + burn treatment after a 1-year to 2-year delay; eastern woodpewees (Contopus virens) increased immediately after treatment. Hooded warblers (Wilsonia citrina), black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia), and worm-eating warblers (Helmitheros vermivorus) declined temporarily in some or all treatments, likely in response to understory and (or) leaf litter depth reductions. Densities of most species affected by treatments varied with shrub cover, tree or snag density, or leaf litter depth. High snag availability, open conditions, and a higher density of flying insects in the mechanical + burn treatment likely contributed to increased bird density and species richness. In our study, fuel reduction treatments that left the canopy intact, such as low-intensity prescribed fire or mechanical understory removal, had few detectable effects on breeding birds compared to the mechanical + burn treatment. Highintensity burning with heavy tree-kill, as occurred in our mechanical + burn treatment, can be used as a management tool to increase densities of birds associated with open habitat while retaining many forest and generalist species, but may have short-term adverse effects on some species that are associated with the ground- or shrub-strata for nesting and foraging.