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Many red-tailed hawks lost homes in Almeda fire

Wildfire is no stranger to our region. It is a powerful force shaping the ecology and the plants and animals that live here.

Wildfire takes many forms, including low-intensity fires that creep along the ground removing low-growing vegetation and consuming fallen limbs and litter. Prior to settlement, they occurred roughly every one to three decades at any one point.

At the other end of the scale, fire can dramatically remove large portions of the forest for decades. Scientists tell us that stand-replacing fires in our region naturally occurred on average every 200-250 years. This cycle of fire and recovery has been repeated a great many times over the millennia.

Summer drought is a feature of our climate, increasing vulnerability to fire. Humans, since their arrival, have altered the natural pattern of wildfire. This summer, for the first time in my experience, wildfire visited the valley floor with horrific results for the people between Ashland and Medford. As infrequent as wildfire is in the human time frame, fire will continue to play a major role in the ecology of the riparian area and the rest of the region.

The impacts on bird populations are huge, if temporary, in the larger picture. I will explore other impacts later, but here I consider the effect on the red-tailed hawk population.

Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common hawks. They breed throughout Oregon, with the exception of dense forests, high elevations or where human populations are greatest. In the Rogue Valley, they occur commonly in the foothills around the valley and, importantly, along the Bear Creek Greenway.

The tall, robust cottonwoods and riparian habitat that border Bear Creek provide nesting sites and enough of a buffer for redtails to thrive. I have followed the successes and failures of 23 territories over the last 30 years — from the airport in Ashland to the mouth of Bear Creek. During that time, I have seen five territories abandoned as the human population of Medford and Central Point has grown.

The Almeda fire killed most of the cottonwoods along an eight-mile stretch of the Greenway. Most dead trees were left standing, but many have now been removed for the safety of Greenway users.

Nine pairs of redtails were affected. There is one nest remaining, possibly two. Dried stick nests do not survive intense fire well. For a couple of years, the red-tailed hawks will be able to construct new nests in the standing dead trees, but soon the snags will be gone. Some pairs will be able to move to oaks and other trees a short distance from the Greenway, but not many. There will be a 30-year lag or more before the next cohort of cottonwoods will be large enough to support redtail nests once again. However, in 30 to 50 years will there be open space enough to allow for their return?

If you look closely along the Greenway, you will find evidence that recovery has already begun. Nature is resilient. Cottonwoods and chokecherries in places less intensely burned have already resprouted and put on a foot of growth. The blackberries have responded even faster — impressive considering the fire occurred in September. I look forward to next spring for other signs of recovery and to see how the redtails respond.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor, emeritus, at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

The Almeda fire killed most of the cottonwoods along an eight-mile stretch of the Bear Creek Greenway, and at least nine pairs of red-tailed hawks were affected. Photo by Peter Evans