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Wildfires may have devastated breeding wildlife

Wildfire destroys nesting habits for birds such as bushtit, California gnatcatcher, Bells vireo and others.
Wildfire destroys nesting habits for birds such as bushtit, California gnatcatcher, Bells vireo and others.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Last weeks devastating wildfires in San Diego County not only affected thousands of human beings, but may have destroyed denning and nesting sites of many breeding animals. Several animals were observed trying to escape the wildfires; some were reported to have young with them. Research ecologist Barbara Kus and her crew were surveying endangered least Bell’s vireos when they were forced to abandon their research because of the fires. Kus claims that the dry weather has been having a big effect on the species’ breeding this year.

The wildlife in San Diego County is adapted to dry conditions and the occasional wildfire. Most animals breed in the early spring just as the rainy season starts to end and while there is still a cool marine layer keeping things from getting too dry. Most animals, including heavy multiple breeders, such as Anna’s hummingbirds, stop breeding by early September. Around that time, the weather usually turns hot and dry and the chance of wildfires increases. By then, most young animals are mobile and able to move to a new area.

However, in mid-May many animals are still in dens and nests. Some birds may have been close to fledging at this time, but not able to fly or walk around. Coyote pups and other denning animals may be mobile, but not enough to escape a fire. Deer fawns are mobile, but not as fast as adults and often respond to danger by hiding. Some precocial birds, like quail, killdeer, and waterfowl, can sometimes move away from fires, but not quickly. Smoky conditions can also affect young animals’ lungs.

It is unknown how much the wildlife in the area was affected by last week’s fires or if any nesting animals survived. For some animals and birds, it may still be early for them to start again. For others, the breeding season is now over. While life has the ability to rebound from disasters such as these, it can’t recover if these events become more common.