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How Does Wildlife Respond When Forest Management Helps to Reduce Wildfire Risk?

Forest managers in the western United States often face difficult choices when it comes to reducing wildfire hazards while also maintaining wildlife habitat in forests that have changed dramatically in the last century.

The U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station and partners are working to find the balance between forest restoration and habitat conservation in a new era of forest management.

US Forest Service Mobilizes to Save Cavity Birds

Small owls, such as western screech and northern saw whet owls, weigh between 3 and 7 ounces, or about the same weight as a small cell phone or a deck of cards.

They prefer dark, narrow spaces for nesting and roosting, which is why they are called cavity birds. Their habitat preferences make them prone to using man-made features, such as open pipes, that mimic their natural nesting and roosting cavities. But on some public lands, that natural act of finding habitat in ventilation pipes has led to their death.

An Airport is No Place for an Owl

Seeing a short-eared owl in November on the Pittsburgh International Airport, where I work as an airport wildlife biologist, was a unique occasion. However, as the number of owls grew to eight, I recognized the challenge ahead:  Like all birds of prey, short-eared owls are a recognized potential aviation hazard. Their low rolling flight and difficult-to-disperse reputation means they pose an aviation safety threat.  From 1990-2012, short-eared owl strikes with aircraft in the United States caused over $1 million in damage, and often are fatal to the birds.  Convincing them to leave would be difficult but important.

The task would be harder because short-eared owls are listed by the State as an endangered species.  Common in many areas globally, Pennsylvania is the southernmost edge of their breeding range.  These owls likely migrated from Canadian breeding grounds to winter in Pennsylvania.

Puff and Fluff the Owls Return Home

Puff and Fluff, the baby owls that Forest Service firefighters saved during the Carstens Fire in June, are finally home. Terri Williams of the Fresno Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Service released the Western Screech-Owls on July 24 near where they were found over a month ago in a downed tree in the Sierra National Forest.

The birds were weak and dehydrated when Williams first received them from the Forest Service on June 20.  But under her care, Puff and Fluff tripled in weight, enjoying a steady diet of mice, day-old chicks and crickets. They grew strong and healthy and soon began showing signs that they were ready for release into the wild. According to Williams, the owls were tearing their own food, eating a whole mouse in one gulp, catching crickets, flying easily, finding hiding places in their enclosure during the day, and showing appropriate defensive actions towards humans, such as beak-clacking and hissing.

Life's a Hoot for Owlets Saved from Wildfire

As the flames from the recent Carstens Fire in the Sierra National Forest approached, two baby Western screech owls huddled abandoned in a nest.

Then, without warning, the tree that was their home came crashing down to the ground. Firefighters working to contain the quickly-spreading fire had cut down the tree to build a fire control line. Too young to fly, the baby owls tumbled to the ground and onto a roadway.