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 five land trusts: Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Alachua Conservation Trust, Aiken Land Conservancy, Georgia Conservancy, and Putnam Land Conservancy. The land trusts, all located in the southeast region of the U.S., work with many partners across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, including the North Florida Prescribed Burn Association, Apalachee Audubon Society, Alachua Audubon Society, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Longleaf Alliance, and South Carolina Forestry Commission. 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.

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 these findings. Members of the Burning for Birds Collaborative 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 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 other plant species. Perhaps not surprisingly, burns that bring the most benefits to native plants also bring the most benefits to native birds.

However, some land managers in the Southeast aren’t quite on board with growing season burns yet. The resistance that they have towards these 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 teamed up in 2022 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 Apalachee Audubon Society and Alachua Audubon Society, staff from the two land trusts monitored Bachman’s Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, and Eastern Meadowlark populations on private properties before and after growing season burns were conducted. All three bird species are listed in the State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs) of Florida and/or Georgia, and each does best in landscapes where fires occur frequently. After the burns and monitoring efforts were complete, the two land trusts worked together to communicate results to a wider audience via an ArcGIS-based StoryMap

This work expanded on a 2020 small grant project implemented by the two organizations 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 and reach a broader audience.

Since the initial partnership between Tall Timbers and Alachua Conservation Trust, the Burning for Birds Collaborative has expanded to include the three additional land trustsAiken Land Conservancy, Georgia Conservancy, and Putnam Land Conservancy—and a wide range of other birding and conservation organizations. In 2024, the Collaborative will focus on restoration efforts benefiting several bird species, including Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Towhee, Bachman’s Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Loggerhead Shrike, all of which have declined due to a lack of fire in their habitats.

The Burning for Birds Collaborative recognizes that burning for the benefit of birds may look different for participating organizations, partners, and landowners, as the goals of the landowner, history of fire, and comfort level with prescribed fire varies from site to site. With this in mind, the Collaborative will create an educational website, highlighting past activities and publishing updates as the Collaborative grows.

Partners in the Collaborative are planning to build on their successes by conducting more prescribed burns, collecting data on previous and new project sites, and creating more opportunities for public participation and private landowner engagement.

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

Upcoming activities include:

  • Establishing a demonstration burn unit at Little Orange Creek Preserve in Hawthorne, Florida (Alachua Conservation Trust)
  • Engaging private landowners with targeted outreach about the benefits of growing-season fire and inviting landowners to view the demonstration unit and learn about opportunities for burning on private lands (Putnam Land Conservancy)
  • Conducting growing-season prescribed burns and bird surveys on at least six private properties that maintain open pine savannas, and monitoring bird abundance by collecting pre- and post-burn data using eBird (Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy)
  • Working with at least three private landowners across the Georgia Sentinel Landscape to create baseline monitoring for avian SWAP species of concern (The Georgia Conservancy)
  • Applying prescribed fire on 130 acres of lands owned by interested conservation easement landowners for the first time, as well as on its own lands where practical, and conducting pre- and post-burn assessments of fire-adapted species with eBird (Aiken Land Conservancy)

The Burning for Birds Conservation Collaborative welcomes new partners and any groups in the region that would like to be engaged in this effort. This Conservation Collaborative has created a spark and, with new and existing partners, looks forward to fanning the flames of bird conservation in the Southeast.

Other Collaboratives: