The black-backed woodpecker could be an important indicator of which side is correct in the debate about prescribed burns, reports the New York Times.
The bird lives almost exclusively in severely burned forests. It thrives on the fire-chaser beetle and the jewel beetle, which are adapted to fires and can detect heat 30 miles away with infrared sensors under their legs. Both species lay eggs only in scorched trees whose defenses have been wiped out by fire.
The black-backed woodpeckers feast on the beetles’ grubs. Their coloring has evolved to blend in with charred trees so they are not visible to hawks and other predators as they peck away.
Tracking the presence of the woodpeckers can indicate whether there are enough severe fires to stimulate their ecosystems, and keep their numbers, as well as those of other species, healthy.
William Baker, a fire and landscape ecologist at the University of Wyoming, contends that the kind of limited fires that are being employed to control bigger fires were not as common in nature as has been thought.
For a recent paper in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, published with Mark Williams, Dr. Baker employed an unorthodox method to reconstruct fire history that challenges current analysis of tree rings. (The study was financed by the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture.)
The United States Forest Service, which manages nearly 200 million acres of public land, believes limited thinning and burning will prevent catastrophic wildfires. The agency contracts with logging companies to cut down large and small trees across sweeping landscapes, and uses prescribed fire. Besides protecting homes, experts say, these methods also recreate the natural state of the forest.
Read more of the story here http://nyti.ms/PAzGVT