Fleeing fires, birds find refuge in Petaluma

Wild birds from fire-ravaged parts of the state seek shelter in Petaluma’s open spaces.|

Recent wildfires have sent residents fleeing from their homes to seek safe refuge where they can find it. Petaluma has once again risen to the call for help.

Wildlife has been seen in areas they don’t usually frequent as animals flee the fires and locals work to rescue and feed them.

Birds have the advantage of taking to the wing to seek safety where they can find it outside of their burning habitat. There are things locals can do to help these feathered friends when they arrive in our area, seeking shelter from the wildfires.

Thomas Gardali is Director of the Pacific Coast and Central Valley Group with Point Blue Conservation Science, based in Petaluma. Gardali said most of the breeding was complete and young birds had been out of nests when recent North Bay fires started.

As long as they can get to areas with healthy vegetation, they should be okay, he explained. Petaluma, with ample open space, is important for wildlife at all times and especially critical during fires.

“So, not only do our open spaces provide refuge for us humans, they are important refuges for birds during wildfires,” he said.

Gardali said that it might not be readily apparent that there are more birds arriving in our backyards, fields and farms. He said welcoming them with simple water features, like bird baths can be helpful as long as there are no outdoor cats in the area.

Point Blue began as a bird observatory in West Marin over 50 years ago and has grown into an internationally recognized leader in conservation science with programs in 13 countries.

“We often say that we work from the Sierra to the sea, from Alaska to Antarctica,” Gardali said.

Gardali said that they practice conservation through the lens of climate change, which means taking the long view.

“The understanding that our long-term datasets provides about the past helps us anticipate how to conserve ecosystems well into the future in the face of environmental change including habitat loss, pollution, climate, and species loss,” he said. “I do the science that decision makers – from policy to natural resource management to private landowners – need to help wildlife and the environment. I don’t know what the severity of these fires will be but that is the key bit of information to understand about the impacts to birds.”

Gardali anticipates mixed short-term impacts and minimal or positive long term ones.

“If the severity is mixed we will likely see a good mix of vegetation surviving and recovering and that mix could be a benefit to bird diversity,” he said. “Those species who are affiliated with lush understory plants – shrubs and forbs – did quite well along the streamside vegetation that came back.”

Some of these fires are in areas where the Northern Spotted Owl lives and their habitat is the canopy of the trees. Gardali said most research suggests that Spotted Owls will be fine with low or even some mixed-severity fires.

“I suspect that like other birds, Spotted Owls can move out during the fire, and then return when the threat is over, assuming the habitat is still available for them,” he said.

Gardali explained that some wildlife including birds have evolved with a very dynamic landscape with areas that are rarely disturbed and other areas that are disturbed regularly. A healthy landscape is one with a dynamic array of areas with both older plants and fresh young growth.

Birds are helped by removing invasive species, planting native plants and restoring degraded landscapes.

“Two of the biggest threats to birds are climate change and habitat loss and both of these big problems can be tackled from the local level all the way up to the international one,” he said.

There are a number of ways to get involved with Point Blue’s critical work. You can visit them online at pointblue.org to learn about events, volunteer opportunities, and other ways to engage with them.

“As a non-profit organization, your tax-free donations enable us to continue doing the critical conservation work that we do,” Gardali said.

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