CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Intentional burning in oak savannas is helping many bird populations, such as the red-headed woodpecker, based on preliminary findings of a three-year study in Illinois.
"In the Midwest, the conservation status of birds associated with savannas and open woodlands has not been promising," said Jeffrey D. Brawn, a scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and a professor of ecology, ethology and evolution at the University of Illinois.
In a report Aug. 12 at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Albuquerque, N.M., Brawn described his work in the Peoria Wilds, a series of conservation areas along the Illinois River, and in the Sand Prairie Scrub Oak State Natural Area to the south in Mason County.
"When you burn, some bird species go down in abundance," he said. "Fire selects against those species, but it enhances some other species." Among the species benefiting in Illinois is thered-headed woodpecker -- whose presence in the Midwest has declined almost 2 percent a year since 1966 -- as well as northern orioles, summer tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and great crested flycatchers.
The findings may be welcome news for conservationists wanting to restore oak savannas forests with open canopies that allow light to shine through easily. Years of fire suppression have eliminated natural disturbances such as wildfires. As a result, forest canopies have closed, altering the flow of light to the ground and bringing about ecological changes: Shade-tolerant maple trees have replaced oaks; ground cover has become fragmented; and bird and animal populations have changed.
Oak savannas flourished in Illinois for at least 8,000 years before modern
agriculture and development began encroaching. Landscape-management issues
have become hot topics in the Midwest and in the West. Prescribed burning,
Brawn said, will result in major changes within 10 years. "We have
to develop an unders
Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign