Breeding bird abundance and species diversity greatest in high-severity wildfire patches in central hardwood forests
In 2016, mixed-severity wildfires in the southern Appalachians created a gradient of forest structures not typical following prescribed burns, providing a unique opportunity to study temporally dynamic conditions and breeding bird response. We measured forest structure and breeding bird communities across a fire-severity gradient in 3 burned and 3 unburned watersheds for 5 years (Y1-Y5). We categorized plots as unburned (NB), low- (L), moderate- (M), or high-severity (H) using a composite fire-severity index. Tree mortality increased with fire-severity category (FSC) and over time; by Y5, 7 % of trees in NB, 11 % in L, 38 % in M, and 71 % in H had died. Shrub recovery was rapid and most pronounced in H, exceeding other FSCs (70 % vs 21 %–44 %) by Y5. Total bird abundance, species richness, and diversity increased over time in H (by Y3) and M (by Y4); by Y5, these metrics were highest in H and twice as high in H as in NB. Low-severity wildfires had no detectable effects on birds. Abundance of 7 species was greatest in higher-severity FSCs; 11 species did not differ among FSC, although ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapilla) indicated a trend of lower abundance in H. No species was limited to NB, L, or M, whereas disturbance-dependent indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), and eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were primarily associated with H. Increased richness and diversity were associated with heavy tree mortality and subsequent shrub recovery in H, accompanied by an influx of disturbance-dependent species and positive or neutral responses by most other species. Results highlight the interrelated roles of fire severity and time in driving forest structure and breeding bird response. Breeding birds responded to high-severity burns similarly to silvicultural treatments with heavy canopy reduction documented in other studies, offering possible alternatives when managing for breeding bird diversity in hardwood forests.