Burning for Birds Collaborative

Growing-season prescribed fire creates open, grassy conditions that declining species such as Bachman’s sparrows prefer. Photo: Peter Kleinhenz.

The Burning for Birds Collaborative consists of a partnership between Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, the Alachua Conservation Trust, the Aiken Land Conservancy, the North Florida Prescribed Burn Association, Putnam Land Conservancy, Apalachee Audubon Society, and the Alachua Audubon Society. The Conservation Collaborative seeks to engage private landowners with ecologically-beneficial prescribed fire in ways that bring maximum benefit to fire-adapted, and declining, bird species of the Southeast in FL, GA, and SC.

Private landowners in the Southeastern Coastal Plain, and the Native Americans that were here before them, have recognized the value of prescribed fire since they first arrived on this landscape. Their connection to the land allowed them to see that plants and animals responded positively to frequent fire in the longleaf pine-wiregrass savannas that once dominated the region. Native Americans set fires intentionally to open up land or influence game movements. Generations later, many private landowners did the same. As the years went by, landowners interested in hunting Northern Bobwhite quail were beginning to realize that quail were present in places that burned and not present in places that didn’t. Partially born out of this recognition is what, today, we call prescribed fire.

Many conservation and research organizations, particularly those active in Florida and Georgia, have promoted the use of prescribed fire ever since. Two of these, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and the Alachua Conservation Trust, actively encourage prescribed fire on the lands that they both manage and work to conserve. But, occasionally, simply promoting fire is not enough. 

Fire ecologists now know that the seasonality, or timing, of burning greatly impacts ecosystems. Burns conducted in the “lightning” or “growing” season, between April and July, have been found to be most ecologically-beneficial to areas that still retain native groundcover, such as wiregrass, toothache grass, and many other plant species. Perhaps not surprisingly, burns that bring the most benefits to native plants also bring the most benefits to native birds.

Some land managers in the Southeast aren’t quite on board with this yet. The resistance that they have towards growing season burns often stems from their fear that such burns will eliminate birds, such as Northern Bobwhite, from their properties. While there are certainly other reasons to cause this hesitation, the fear of losing birds is a fear that can be overcome.

Bachman’s sparrows require frequent fire, so much so that they will abandon areas that have not burned in more than 4 years. Photo: Eliza Hawkins.

Recognizing this, Tall Timbers and the Alachua Conservation Trust have teamed up to offset the cost of burning for landowners willing to burn later in the season by way of a “Small Grant” awarded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative. In partnership with volunteers from the Apalachee Audubon Society and Alachua Audubon Society, staff from the two land trusts will monitor Bachman’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, and Eastern Meadowlark populations on private properties before and after growing season burns are conducted. All three bird species are listed in the State Wildlife Action Plans of Florida and/or Georgia, and each does best in landscapes that receive frequent fire. After the burns and monitoring efforts are complete, the two land trusts will work together to communicate results to a wider audience via a GIS-based Storymap. 

Apalachee Audubon volunteers, Tall Timbers staff, and private landowners documenting birds on a large hunting property in Southwest Georgia. Photo: Peter Kleinhenz.

This work expands on a previous Small Grant project that the two organizations implemented to document listed bird populations on private lands using eBird. That project illuminated to the two groups how powerful birds can be, and how much can be accomplished through their partnership. The groups created a “Conservation Collaborative” to expand that work to this current, management-focused project. This year, a new partner in the Conservation Collaborative has submitted an application on behalf of the partners to expand this work even further. The Putnam Land Conservancy plans to monitor bird populations with local Audubon volunteers from Santa Fe Audubon Society, Duval Audubon Society, and the Marion Audubon Society on properties that have been managed and properties that have not. They simultaneously plan to apply fire to new areas and use other management techniques to reintroduce fire into habitats where it has long been absent.

Tall Timbers and the Alachua Conservation Trust are excited to see other partners join their Florida/Georgia Burning for Birds Conservation Collaborative, and welcome any groups that would like to play a role. These two groups have created a spark and, with their new and existing partners, look forward to fanning the flames of bird conservation.

Other Collaboratives: