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Marsh Birds and Fire

Marsh Birds and Fire

Full Title: Fire effects in Gulf of Mexico marshes: Historical perspectives, management, and monitoring of mottled ducks and black and yellow rails

This project investigates how three bird species of concern (black rail, yellow rail, and mottled duck) respond to different prescribed fire management regimes within high marsh ecosystems across the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Team: Auriel M.V. Fournier (lead investigator, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,, Mark Woodrey (lead investigator, Mississippi State University), Kristine Evans (Mississippi State University), John Andrew Nyman (Louisiana State University Agricultural Center), Robert Rohli (Louisiana State University), Warren Conway (Texas Tech University), Michelle Meyers (United States Geological Survey), Jim Lyons (United States Geological Survey), Robert Cooper (University of Georgia), Erik Johnson (National Audubon Society), Jim Cox (Tall Timbers Research Station), and Chris Butler (University of Central Oklahoma)

Collaborators: William Vermillion (Gulf Coast Joint Venture/US Fish and Wildlife Service), Joe Lancaster (Gulf Coast Joint Venture/Ducks Unlimited), Michael Brasher (Ducks Unlimited), Amy Schwarzer (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), Ron Bielefeld (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), Eric Soehren (AL Department of Conservation and Natural Resources), Jennifer Wilson (US Fish and Wildlife Service), Jena Moon (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Technical Monitors: John Tirpak ( and Kevin Kalasz (

Federal Program Officer/Science Program Liaison: Frank Parker (

Research Area: Multispecies, weather and climate

Award Amount: $3,922,699

Award Period: This project began in September 2019 and will end in August 2024.

Why it matters: Black rail and yellow rail are identified as birds of conservation concern (migrating nongame birds that are likely candidates for Endangered Species Act listing without additional conservation actions). Mottled ducks are of high conservation concern as the only species of duck which spends its entire year along the Gulf Coast. Natural resource managers are tasked with conserving all three bird species, yet we know very little about their response to fire in high marsh wetlands. This lack of understanding limits natural resource managers’ ability to manage and conserve the biodiversity of the Gulf Coast. This project will address specific information needs of resource managers and conservation organizations like determining the distribution and habitat use of yellow rails, black rails, and mottled ducks during breeding and nonbreeding seasons, and understanding how prescribed fire practices influence that distribution and abundance in high marsh habitats.

What the team is doing: This project monitors black rail, yellow rail, and mottled duck responses to prescribed fire application using an adaptive management framework. The framework will inform decision making by helping researchers and resource managers test predictions and improve our understanding of how these birds of concern interact with high marsh ecosystems and prescribed fire. Specifically, this project will:

  1. Create high resolution up-to-date maps of high marsh habitats across the five Gulf States
  2. Determine the distribution and abundance of black and yellow rails and mottled ducks in high marsh habitats across the five Gulf states during the breeding and wintering seasons. This will be accomplished through on the ground surveys throughout the year, and by analyzing feather samples from individual birds to determine what they are eating which will allow us to estimate the relative proportion of resident versus migratory black rails.
  3. Determine if seasonal weather patterns have changed over time in such a way that they would limit potential prescribed fire practices that could be implemented in high marshes.
  4. Identify prescribed fire practices that support black and yellow rail and mottled duck populations through an adaptive management process. This process will involve determining the mechanism of bird response to fire through plants and invertebrates, characterizing the appropriate fire return interval in high marsh, and determining if weather affecting prescribed fire has changed in frequency over time.

Expected Outcome: This project will create computer models of co-occurrence, distribution, and abundance of black rail, yellow rail, and mottled duck. This project will also identify potential trade-offs or synergies from prescribed fire applications in high marsh ecosystems. This information will reduce uncertainty around the response of high priority bird species to prescribed fire and aid future management decisions.