Fire Improves Bird Habitat at Ganondagan State Historic Site

Have you heard about wildfire outbreaks in California or New York on the news? Do you know how a prescribed burn and wildfire differ from one another?  A prescribed burn is very different from a wildfire. Prescribed burning is a management tool that is precisely planned for safety and meeting set goals, while wildfires often occur unpredictably and without warning. State Parks utilizes prescribed burning for both public safety and conservation purposes. This past spring, at the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, prescribed burning was used for both conservation and to replicate traditions of the Seneca people.

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Control lines are created at the edge of the area to be burned so that the fire does not escape designated areas. These lines are approximately 12 feet wide and are kept wet and clear of fire by prescribed burn staff, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Ganondagan State Historic Site (Ganondagan) celebrates and interprets the lives and culture of the Seneca people, specifically the Seneca that lived on site between 1655-1687. The site is 570 acres, and in 2009, a 70-acre portion was set aside for grassland management. Journal entries from European visitors during the time of Seneca occupation, described the areas surrounding Ganondagan. In 1669, explorers Galineē and Dollier described vast oak openings with sparse, but lofty, oak trees and grasses taller than a man that extended for hundreds of miles in every direction.¹ These observations paint a picture of warm season grasslands, with grasses reaching heights of 8 feet or taller, sparse wildflowers and oak trees around their fringe.² Warm season grasses begin growing in June, reaching full maturity by August or September. Some of the earliest observations indicate that the Seneca people burned these grasslands annually, managing them to attract game animals and birds, and to facilitate nut collection.³

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Prescribed fire at Ganondagan was lit with drip torches, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

The 70 acres set aside for grassland management began its transformation in 2009, with the goal of recreating the landscape that existed for the Seneca at Ganondagan almost 400 years ago. A fully established warm season grassland can support many forms of life, and at Ganondagan it is a haven for rare grassland bird species. Grasslands are ecosystems maintained by natural disturbances like fire. Without disturbance, a grassland will gradually go through the steps of succession to become a shrubland and later a forest.

Before the prescribed burn at Ganondagan in May 2017, the grasslands had begun to build up a thick thatch layer, decreasing both the amount of sunlight reaching its sun-loving plants and the amount of bare ground between plants (which grassland birds and mammals like for habitat).

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A successful prescribed burn is designed to keep the fire within control lines and the smoke up and away from people and homes, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Time of year can play an important role in how an ecosystem reacts to a burn. At Ganondagan, a spring burn was chosen to cut off early growth of invasive species and to promote the growth of the warm season grasses like big bluestem and Indian grass. Future prescribed burning done on the site may happen in different seasons depending on the desired outcome. For example, a prescribed burn taking place in this warm season grassland in the fall would promote the growth of forbs (broad leaved plants), such as wildflowers. Regardless of the timing, a properly done prescribed burn will not completely remove grasses or forbs, but can help achieve the best plant composition for grassland birds.

Prescribed burning was the perfect way to manage the grasslands at Ganondagan: it created a disturbance to maintain the ecosystem, returned carbon and nitrogen to the soil in the form of ash, and opened the grassland to more sunlight. This burn also provides a unique opportunity for educators to interpret this management tool, once used by the Seneca at Ganondagan to maintain the grasslands in the 17th Century, and now updated for the 21st century!

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The ‘mop up’ of a prescribed burn ensures that all of the fire is completely out and, as in the case of the Ganondagan Prescribed Burn, can take longer than the burn itself, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

This valuable management tool will continue to be used at the Ganondagan State Historic Site and are exploring future opportunities.

Post by Whitney Carleton-DeGeorge and Michael Galban , State Parks

Featured image: Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

1 Galinée, René de Bréhant de. (env. 1670) 1903. “Le Voyage De MM. Dollier et Galinée.” In Exploration of the Great Lakes 1669-1670 by Dollier de Casson and de Bréhant de Galinée, ed. James H. Coyne. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records.

² Parker, Arthur – New York State Archeologist – “The League of the Five Nations – a Story of the Aboriginal Empire State” published in Livingston County Historical Society 34th Annual Meeting, Geneseo, NY, 1910.

³Donck, Adriaen van der, 1620-1655. (Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant. English) A description of New Netherland / Adriaen van der Donck; edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A Starna; translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys; foreword by Russell Shorto.

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