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California Fires Good News

It’s difficult to imagine that the fires raging in the mountains of California and Oregon would be good news for anything - but such events are beneficial to nature, playing a vital role in keeping ecosystems healthy. And for the native black-backed woodpecker, it’s truly the best of times.

To our eyes, such a fire-swept landscape “looks very stark,” says Rodney Siegel, a wildlife biologist and the executive director of the Institute for Bird Populations, a non-profit organization dedicated to studying and monitoring bird populations, in Petaluma, California. “But to black-backed woodpeckers, it looks like home.”

Relentlessly drilling holes in the trunks of fire-hardened trees in pursuit of insects, these woodpeckers create ready-made shelters for dozens of different animal species, who eat fire-retardant plants seeds and distribute them widely in their droppings; thereby enabling the forest to regenerate.

This extraordinary bird is just one of an ecosystem of plant and animal species who have evolved around the reality of seasonal fires. The woodpecker deliberately seeks out fire-damaged forests in search of their favorite snack: the larvae of the black fire beetle, which have evolved heat-sensing organs to find which trees are still warm from fires to lay their eggs in.

“Woodpeckers are ecosystem engineers,” says Teresa Lorenz, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. She has tracked black-backed woodpeckers in the forests of the Cascade Range, where this year’s fires have burned catastrophically.

“Many small animals, from chipmunks to flying squirrels to mountain bluebirds and wood ducks, compete for the woodpeckers’ vacated nests because they are so protected from the elements and other predators. We wouldn’t have swallows, swifts, or bats without woodpeckers.”

Out of 180 species of woodpecker on earth, the black-backed is not the only one who has adapted to thrive in fire ravaged forests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is another such specialist, living on the other side of America from the black-backed, and relies on low-intensity burns through the undergrowth of the long-leaf pine forests of the southeast and mid-Atlantic.

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