Dramatic fluctuations in food resources are a key feature of many habitats, and many species have evolved a movement strategy to exploit food resources that are unpredictable in space and time. The availability of food resources may be a particularly strong determinant of habitat quality for irruptive bird species. We studied the apparent foraging success of Black-backed Woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus), an irruptive species that responds opportunistically to pulsed food resources in burned forests and mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestations. Prior investigations revealed that the highest population growth rates of Black-backed Woodpeckers occurred in habitat created by summer wildfire, with intermediate population growth rates in MPB infestations, and the lowest population growth rates in habitats created by prescribed fire in fall. We tested whether apparent foraging success was associated with known habitat quality in order to assess the potential for food availability to regulate population growth. We counted the number of successfully captured wood-boring beetle larvae and “small” prey on each tree that a Black-backed Woodpecker used for foraging and modeled these counts as a function of habitat, tree diameter, number of years postfire, and tree disturbance category. Total apparent foraging success (the sum of observed captures of wood-boring beetle larvae and small prey per tree) did not vary across habitats, but woodpeckers foraging in habitats created by summer wildfire were expected to capture 2.2 and 2.0 times more wood-boring beetles than woodpeckers foraging in habitats created by fall prescribed fire and MPB infestations, respectively. These results suggest that the availability of food resources may contribute to population regulation in this irruptive species. Furthermore, population growth in irruptive species may be highly sensitive to the availability of preferred food resources. Forests recently burned by summer wildfires provide relatively abundant food resources for Black-backed Woodpeckers and represent high-quality habitat for this species of conservation concern.
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