Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests by Sneed B. Collard III – A Review by Rose Cappelli
Every year in the United States, thousands of wildfires destroy millions of acres of forests. Most of us are saddened by this, thinking of all the destruction of our natural resources and animal habitats. In Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests, Sneed B. Collard III not only teaches us about the many species of birds who need burned areas to survive, but through engaging text and straightforward talk, he challenges us to think about our world in new ways.
When I first received Fire Birds I was immediately drawn to the exquisite photographs. Close ups of Mountain Bluebirds, a Three-Toed Woodpecker and other bird species stood out in contrast to burning forests and blackened tree trunks. But I think it was the introduction, titled “Inferno!” that really pulled me in. Engaging the reader by writing in the present tense and with the use of strong verbs, Sneed takes us right to a forest in Montana. The writing is so powerful I had to read it more than once. In three short paragraphs we experience a natural wildfire from beginning to end. The introduction ends with these lines:
“Nature has been devastated, leaving behind a vast wasteland.
Or has it?”
That simple question sets us up for what is to come and makes us want to turn the page.
Sneed expertly weaves in information from interviews and other research as he tells what probably is to most readers, a surprising story. In the opening chapters we walk with University of Montana Biologist Dick Hutto through a burn area in Montana. Even though the forest was blackened by a wildfire ten years ago, it is full of wildlife.
We learn that more than fifteen kinds of birds prefer to nest in burned forests. Here they can find an abundance of food and places for shelter, often in the absence of predators. One bird, the Black-backed Woodpecker, is almost never seen outside of burned forests.
Dick began researching fires in 1988. That was the year fires burned inside Yellowstone National Park. People were concerned that these fires would destroy the park forever. Dick knew that wildfires were part of the rhythm of nature, but he was curious to find out if they were destroying the forests forever. He set up a bird monitoring program detailing which species of birds are present in thousands of locations. Then he compared that to how often the birds were found in burned areas.
In addition to helping fire birds, natural wildfires benefit forests in other ways. Some shrubs such as wild hollyhock bear seeds that only sprout after exposure to fire. When extra sunlight can reach the forest floor, certain trees such as larch and aspen have the freedom to sprout and grow.
As Fire Birds explores the complex relationships between fire and the plant and animal communities of the forest, it also raises many questions about how wildfires and burned areas are managed. Certainly, fires that threaten homes and people must be fought. But what about those fires that occur naturally in remote areas? I think older students could use the information found in this book as a jumping off point to other research investigating such issues such as salvage logging. This book could easily fit into a unit on argument writing.
I am always on the lookout for engaging nonfiction text that will not only challenge readers but that will also provide good models for our young nonfiction writers. Fire Birds contains many features of nonfiction that can be used as models with students including a powerful introduction, a table of contents, glossary, text boxes featuring different birds, and interesting headings. Each chapter ends with a question or a statement that makes the reader want to continue. Fire Birds is a perfect example of nonfiction writing with voice that will inform, entertain, and challenge our thinking.
Fire Birds is targeted for ages 8 and up. It is published by Bucking Horse Books in Missoula, Montana, and will be available on January 1, 2015.
Rose Cappelli is a literacy consultant, retired reading specialist, and lover of children’s literature. She is the co-author of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts, all published by Stenhouse. Rose blogs (occasionally) at www.metortextswithlynneandrose.com. She can be found on Twitter at @RoseCappelli.