Consequences Of Forest Fires On The Corsican Nuthatches
EPHE, CEFE (UMR 5175)
Because of its forest habitat, its restricted range, and its small
population size, the Corsican nuthatch is one of the rare
Mediterranean birds most threatened by fire.
Large fires may have different consequences for a bird population
1. the characteristics of the fire (e.g., size, severity, patchiness, time
2. changes in vegetation structure
3. increase or depletion of food
4. nest-site availability
5. increase in predation
The present study aims :
• to measure the effect of two large
wildfires on nuthatch abundance,
• to identify the habitat
characteristics and level of fire
severity that best explained the
local presence or absence of the
nuthatches after the fire, so as to
conservation strategies and
forestry practices after fire.
• The forest of Tartagine-Melaja : In August 2003, a
wildfire burned 1 836 ha of forest and maquis. The
study area (680 ha) included the whole burned forest
except areas that had been logged for timber before
• The forest of Corte-Restonica : In August 2000, a
wildfire burned 2 371 ha ha of forest and maquis. The
study area (224 ha) included most of the habitat of
nuthatches affected by fire.
In the forest of Tartagine-Melaja, in May and June 1992
(i.e., before the fire), the nuthatch territories were
exhaustively mapped on a ca. 300 ha. After the fire, i.e.
during springs 2004 and 2005, we mapped the nuthatch
territories on the whole study area
In the forest of Corte-Restonica, the nuthatch territories
were exhaustively mapped before the fire (1992) and
after the fire (i.e. during springs 2004 and 2005) on
whole area study
Study area :
• The forest of Tartagine-Melaja
• After mapping of nuthatch territories, we recorded
39 plots within nuthatches after fire (territories
occupied in 2004, or in 2005, or both)
• In addition, 22 plots without nuthatches after fire
were selected randomly using a GIS (Arcview
On the 39 occupied plots and the 22 empty plots, we defined 3 circular
sub-plots, each of them with a radius of ca. 11.40 m. The centres of the
three subplots were 50 m away from each other on a straight and
generally horizontal line. The centre of the median sub-plot
corresponded, depending on the case, (i) to a nest, (ii) to a contact with
a territorial bird, if the nest was not found, or (iii) to the centre of a
randomly selected square without nuthatch.
Within each sub-plot, we measured five variables on all Corsican pines
whose diameter at breast height (DBH) was greater than 10 cm:
(i) DBH, (ii) height of the tree, (iii) height of blackened trunk, (iv)
height of the lowest branch of the crown, (v) height of the lowest
branch with green foliage
In the statistical analysis, the three subplots were lumped together into
one plot, corresponding to a surface of ca. 1 225 m².
From the field measurements we calculated several
secondary variables, and selected among them seven
variables for the modelling :
1. the number of trees on the plot (NT),
2. the diameter of the largest pine on the plot (Dmax),
3. the height of the smallest pine (Hmin),
4. the length of the longest pine crown (before fire) on the plot
5. the number of dead pines (NDT),
6. the minimum height of blackened trunk (HBTmin),
7. the smallest length of pine crown burned (SLCB), i.e., the length of
the burned crown measured on the pine which has been the least
affected by the fire on the plot (measured from the lowest branch of
the crown upwards to the first green branch).
Based on these seven variables, we modelled the presence-absence of the
nuthatch using multiple logistic regressions. Starting from full models, each
of them including a set of variables and all their interactions, the selection
was performed through a backward procedure using R software.
We first explored two categories of variables separately (step 1):
(i) four dendrometric variables (NT, Dmax, Hmin, LCmax),
(ii) three fire severity variables (NDT, HBTmin, SLCB).
After having identified the best model in each category from its p value
(using AIC instead of the probabilities lead to the same results), we merged
all the selected explanatory variables and continued the selection process
until the final model, where all the variables were significant (step 2).
Significance is given at the 5% level.
0 300 600 900 1200 m.
Années d'occupation des territoires
0 300 600 900 1200 m.
Zone prospectée uniquement en 2004 et 2005
Zone prospectée en 1992, 2004 et 2005
Années d'occupation des territoires
Année Nombre de territoires
Corte-Restonica Tartagine-Melaja (ZONE-B)
1992 15 24
2000 incendie -
2003 - incendie
2004 11 15
2005 9 13
2007 5 -
in the two Corsican pine forests where
nuthatches have been monitored before and
after fire, the number of territorial birds has
sharply declined in the first spring after fire:
by - 37.5 % on Tartagine-Melaja and - 50%
The decrease in abundance observed in the
study area appears to result from the fire
The habitat seems to remain
unfavourable for nuthatches
for several years after fire. We
did not observe any trend
toward a restoration of
nuthatch numbers in the first
two years after fire in
Tartagine-Melaja forest, nor
even in the first seven years
after fire in Restonica forest .
The decline for several years
after the fire may result to (i)
the mortality of individuals
remained on their territory
during the first years
following the disturbance
(site tenacity), and (ii) non-
recruitment of new nuthatches
due to unfavorable habitat
the modelling procedure selected the
smallest length of crown burned as the
only variable significantly (at the 5%
level) explaining nuthatch presence.
The regression coefficients show that
the smaller the length of crown
burned, the more likely was the
presence of the nuthatch after the fire
(intercept = 0.925, slope = -0.388).
The probability of occurrence of the
bird was greater than 0.5 when the
smallest length of crown burned on a
pine of the plot was less than 2.5 m (cf.
Fig.). In other words, the nuthatch
tends to be absent in severe burns
when all the pines have more than
2.5 m of burned crown.
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Smallest length of crown burned (m)
Probability of occurrence of the Corsican
Nuthatch as a function of the smallest length of
Corsican pine crown burned (with 90%
The fire can have different effects, not exclusive and depending generally on its
severity, that could explain the decline of nuthatches in burned areas:
The simultaneous decrease of shelters, of nest sites, and of food resources probably forces
nuthatches to leave the burned stands. Emigration resulting from a shortage of seeds has
been described in the related Red-breasted nuthatch Sitta canadensis, especially after fire.
Nuthatches breed in dead and soft wood where the pairs excavate holes. The fire usually
burns most of the available snags, so that it may be difficult for birds to find nest-sites in the
short term before new snags are available (several years may be required for the dead wood
of the pines killed by fire to become soft enough to permit the excavation of new nest sites
by the nuthatch).
The seeds of Corsican pine are the main food resource for nuthatches. Even if the opening of
cones by fire makes numerous unburned seeds available during the days immediately
following the fire, the production of new seeds is much reduced in burned areas.
Fire may cause an increase in the abundance of predators. Woodpeckers in general and
Great Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos major (a nest predator of nuthatch), in particular,
usually increase in abundance after fire, increasing the risk of predation for nuthatch.
The disappearance of a fraction of the canopy, increasing the distances between crowns, is
prejudicial to forest birds that need cover as protection against predators.
The habitat seems to remain unfavourable for nuthatches for several
years after fire. We did not observe any trend toward a restoration of
nuthatch numbers in the first two years after fire in Tartagine-Melaja
forest, nor even in the first seven years after fire in Restonica forest.
There are several long-lasting effects of fire:
i. where there is woodland regrowth after fire, even when the
regeneration of the pines is successful the habitat, when
completely burned, remains unfavourable for 60-120 years, i.e.,
the estimated time for stand maturity
ii. the natural regeneration of Pinus nigra after fire is low
iii. seed production decreases for several years after fire
iv. Corsican pines suffer delayed mortality as other Mediterranean
As with other passerines, the nuthatch seems to show a high site-
tenacity after a moderate disturbance. Owing to the irregular
topography of the Corsican mountain forests, the severity of the
fire varies from place to place, resulting in a mosaic of patches
burned to different degrees. The nuthatch is absent only in the
most burned areas. This mosaic pattern tempers the impact of
large wildfires on the population.
Our results show that the nuthatch is likely to be absent when all
the pines have more than 2.5 m of burned crown on the plot, and
present when at least one pine has less than 2.5 m of crown
burned (i.e., the threshold at which the presence and absence of
the nuthatch are equally probable). Thus a burned stand should
not be clear-cut in the latter case. The use of such criteria could
help the selection of plots to be cut where salvage logging is