Quantifying the multi-scale response of avifauna to prescribed fire experiments in the southwest United States
Landscape-scale disturbance events, including ecological restoration and fuel reduction activities, can modify habitat and affect relationships between species and their environment. To reduce the risk of uncharacteristic stand-replacing fires in the southwestern United States, land managers are implementing restoration and fuels treatments (e.g., mechanical thinning, prescribed fire) in progressively larger stands of dry, lower elevation ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest. We used a Before–After/Control–Impact experimental design to quantify the multi-scale response of avifauna to large (∼250–400 ha) prescribed fire treatments on four sites in Arizona and New Mexico dominated by ponderosa pine. Using distance sampling and an information-theoretic approach, we estimated changes in density for 14 bird species detected before (May–June 2002–2003) and after (May–June 2004–2005) prescribed fire treatments. We observed few site-level differences in pre- and posttreatment density, and no species responded strongly to treatment on all four sites. Point-level spatial models of individual species response to treatment, habitat variables, and fire severity revealed ecological relationships that were more easily interpreted. At this scale, pretreatment forest structure and patch characteristics were important predictors of posttreatment differences in bird species density. Five species (Pygmy Nuthatch [Sitta pygmaea], Western Bluebird [Sialia mexicana], Steller's Jay [Cyanocitta stelleri], American Robin [Turdus migratorius], and Hairy Woodpecker [Picoides villosus]) exhibited a strong treatment response, and two of these species (American Robin and Hairy Woodpecker) could be associated with meaningful fire severity response functions. The avifaunal response patterns that we observed were not always consistent with those reported by more common studies of wildland fire events. Our results suggest that, in the short term, the distribution and abundance of common members of the breeding bird community in Southwestern ponderosa pine forests appear to be tolerant of low- to moderate-intensity prescribed fire treatments at multiple spatial scales and across multiple geographic locations.