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Burning Habitat: Profound Truth From A Real Fire Bird

The Phoenix, a bird of Greek mythology, was destroyed and reborn in fire.  A symbol of rejuvenation and long life.  A tale for sure, but author Christopher Vogler claims myths offer wisdom.  “A myth…is not an untruth but a way of reaching a profound truth.”  In the myth of the Phoenix, our wild turkey represents profound truth.

A lofty perch for a rather homely bird that appears more parody than prophet.  As if drawn by a kindergartner, the wild turkey’s tiny, bald head sits atop a disproportionately large, apple-shaped frame.  Birds in flight rarely provoke chuckles, but turkeys do.  With the agility of a combine at a demolition derby, wild turkey commonly crash through branches in flight – frankly, it’s just easier than mid-flight maneuvers.  Heck, the turkey wasn’t even a close second in the beauty pageant for our Nation’s symbol (sorry Ben Franklin, you tried).  But, as a symbol for our Nation’s lands for self-renewal through fire, the wild turkey is profound truth.

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Image credit: Kurt Westbrook

“A common misconception is that prescribed burns during the growing season are detrimental to wild turkey populations because they burn lots of nests,” said James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) Chief Conservation Officer (currently Development Advisor to the CEO).  The NWTF Wildlife Biologist’s research demonstrates nesting and brood habitat created by a growing season prescribed burn, despite the loss of a few nests, benefits the turkey population.

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Image credit: Sandy Ellarson

And it is not just wild turkeys that benefit; many wildlife species depend on the fire-adapted plant communities of prairie, savannas and oak woodlands.  Here are three good reasons why you should consider burning your wildlife habitat.

1. Burning keeps the pantry stocked with variety.

For most wildlife, the nutritional value of habitat is determined by food availability within four feet of the ground, where the majority of critters forage.  Burning forces plants to re-sprout, providing tender, nutritional shoots; burning controls taller, competing shrubs and trees, allowing more sunlight to grow flowers, seeds and attract insects (turkey poults’ diet is 90% insects); burning removes dead plants and leaves, exposing nuts and soil for foraging.

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2. Burning benefits nut trees – a major nutritional source.

Oaks, and to a lesser extent, hickories, are adapted to fire.  A low-intensity burn (so called “cool burn” is achieved through higher humidity, shorter flame lengths and longer residence time (amount of time flames are present in one spot).  These burns preserve and promote nut trees while reducing unwanted brush and fire-intolerant species (e.g., maple, elm, ash).  A growing season burn, when buds have started to break (throughout April and very early May), provides the most effective control of unwanted trees and shrubs.

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3. Long-term gains outweigh short-term losses.

“While some turkey nests are lost in spring burns, evidence shows that most hens will re-nest,” said Kennamer.  “Especially if the loss of the nest occurs early in the incubation cycle.”  Studies indicate these habitats, maintained open through burning, result in greater populations of many different species over time.  The beneficial effects of one burn last 3 to 5 years.  Literally, life reborn through death.  Profound.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the My Wisconsin Woods e-newsletter. The Aldo Leopold Foundation is one of the partners in My Wisconsin Woods, a consortium of public and private organizations who collaborate to inspire conservation action on private lands in the Driftless region of Wisconsin.