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Wildfires and Controlled Fires Both Threaten Australian Fairy-wrens

Australia Fire Danger

The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren is an aptly named bird. These pint-sized Australian songbirds are endlessly charming and easily recognized by their colorful namesake purple crowns and electric blue tails. The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren is considered to be of Least Concern by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Despite this, these vibrant little songbirds face a multitude of ecological threats. Of those threats, wildfires may be the most catastrophic.

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The 2019-2020 fire season in Australia was markedly deadly, resulting in the loss of dozens of human lives and billions of dollars worth of property. The ecological impact was devastating as well, with about 15 million hectares of land destroyed and uncountable numbers of wildlife killed, injured, or displaced. It was the worst bush fire in Australia in recent memory, however it is far from the only damaging Australian wildfire.

Wildfires are common in Australia, particularly in the region’s tropical monsoonal savanna biomes where wet season rains cause huge booms in vegetation which then dry out and act as tinder for devastating fires.

That’s why one practice set in place to reduce intense wildfires is the controlled burning of vegetation within these biomes before wildfire season gets underway. This is a common land management practice with evident benefits, but it is not without downsides.

The riparian territories where these controlled burns are conducted are home to a wealth of diverse species reliant on these delicate habitats. The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren is one such species. A recent study found that, within a population of between 200 and 300 Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens, intense uncontrolled wildfires reduced the birds by half. What they also found was that lower intensity controlled fires still caused a significant reduction in population for several years.

In fact, during and shortly after the times when controlled burns took place, the breeding success of Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens was found to be reduced by as much as 80%.

While the Purple-crowned Fairy-wren may not be on the brink of extinction, it still relies on these habitats to thrive. Such a dramatic reduction in nesting success may be a signal of an even more dramatic decline to come. In that case, what is the solution? If controlled burns are the only way to prevent even more destructive wildfires, then the Purple-crowned Fairy-wren would be endangered even further by the cessation of this practice. More research is needed to understand the relationship between these birds and land management fires. With further research, it is possible that new practices can be identified which may reduce the risk of fire while preserving delicate wildlife.

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