June 19, 2019, 11:42 pm
Benefits of Spring Burning to Ground Nesting Birds

Prescribed fire is a preferred tool used by land managers in the Southeast to achieve a range of forestry and wildlife goals. It provides an excellent option for maintaining habitat for ground nesting birds, including the wild turkey and Bobwhite quail. Ideal habitat for these bird species is characterized by an open, pine dominated forest canopy with a ground layer of forbs and shrubs ranging from one to two feet in height.

In the Southeast, prescribed fires typically are planned for the dormant season from December to March. Nesting season for these bird species begins in early March and ends in April. Dormant season burns burn cool and are traditionally thought to reduce the loss of individual nests of ground nesting birds. They also do not conflict with hunting season for wild turkey and Bobwhite quail. Spring burns are thought to contribute to the loss of individual nests, as spring burning and nesting season coincide. However, they benefit wildlife habitats by providing broader seed dispersal, heightened insect quantity, and improved browse quality, thus encouraging a more robust wildlife population. A more frequent spring burn rotation assists in minimizing the loss of individual nests and maximizes the benefits to wildlife habitat, thus improving brood resiliency.

Dormant season burns typically do not burn hot enough to reduce competition in the understory. As a result, hardwood sprouts remain persistent into the growing season, which negatively impacts ground nesting bird habitats by reducing available foraging opportunities. As hardwood competition increases in the understory, the availability of forbs and shrubs used as forage decreases. Grasses and forbs utilized as fuel during a dormant season burn take time to regenerate, resulting in a temporary loss of primary nesting cover. This loss of nesting habitat can expose young poults to predation. Spring burns assist in reducing the time scale between the temporary loss of nesting cover and regeneration, while also providing vital habitat benefits.

Land managers should consider all options when planning a burn. The management goal should be the primary focus of the burn plan and rotation schedule. Considerations of timing and planning – dormant season vs. spring, size of burn, patchwork vs. broad scale, fuel loads, wind direction, smoke management, overstory type and size, and fuel moisture are just a few of the many factors that drive these decisions. When considering prescribed fire management for wildlife, and more specifically, ground nesting birds, land managers need to consider both the advantages and disadvantages of each of these factors, as they have a measureable impact on the health and longevity of bird populations on a micro and macro scale.


Knapp, Eric E., Becky L. Estes, et al. United States Department of Agriculture. Ecological Effects of Prescribed Fire Season: A Literature Review and Synthesis for Managers. Pacific Southwest Research Station: 2009. .

Mccord, John M., and Craig A. Harper. "Brood Habitat Following Canopy Reduction, Understory Herbicide Application, and Fire in Mature Upland Hardwoods." 65-72. .

Roth, Lin, and Robert Franklin. "Timing of Prescribed Fire in Longleaf Pine Management: Benefits, Risks, and Roles by Season ." Clemson Extension. Forestry Leaflet 32.

SC Department of Natural Resources. "Growing-season burns a natural ecological process in South Carolina." 22 May 2009. .