The effects of early and late-season fires on mortality, dispersal, physiology and breeding of red-backed fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus)

Stephen Murphy, Sarah Legge, Joanne Heathcote, Eridani Mulder

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Context. Mismanaged fire is one of the main processes threatening biodiversity in northern Australian savannas. While the suite of species adversely affected by fire has been quite well documented, empirical studies that seek to identify the ecological mechanisms that underpin these declines are rare. This dearth of mechanistic knowledge is hindering the refinement and development of conservation management practices and policy, such as early dry-season prescribed burning programmes. Aims. Our aim was to describe why red-backed fairy-wrens (RBWs; Malurus melanocephalus) decline after fire, as shown by previous studies. Methods. We examined the effects of early and late dry-season fire (and an unburnt control) on the mortality, dispersal, physiology and breeding of colour-marked RBWs. We also tested whether the early fire area became an important refuge after the late fire. Key results. Neither fire treatment caused a detectable increase in mortality. Individuals relocated short distances to unburnt habitat following both fires. Some individuals used the early fire area after the late fire, but only if they were already living nearby and most also relied on adjacent unburnt habitat. Blood-parasite infection and pectoral-muscle attrition were unaffected by the treatments. The early fire caused loss of body mass at a time when the control population gained mass after breeding, whereas the late fire had no effect on mass. Blood haemoglobin concentrations in birds affected by the late fire deviated from the levels observed in the control population, presumably because of disruption of behaviours associated with the onset of the breeding season. Mayfield estimations of daily egg-survival probability showed no difference among the treatments, whereas the daily probability of nestling survival was significantly lower in the late fire area. Pairs affected by the late fire also had a shorter breeding season and none attempted multiple broods after earlier successes. Conclusions. Our results suggest that the reproductive output of RBWs is low following late dry-season fire, and that this is the main mechanism that explains their decline. Implications. This study provides support for the value of using early dry-season prescribed burning to limit the effects of late dry-season wildfire. However, there are important caveats to this, such as the retention of near-by unburnt habitat, and the consideration of variable regeneration rates for different vegetation types. � 2010 CSIRO.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)145-155
    Number of pages11
    JournalWildlife Research
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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