Australia’s indigenous peoples have long spoken of birds of prey intentionally starting bushfires to flush out prey. In a new study, researchers have now compiled observations and anecdotes from scientific reports, firefighters and Aboriginal peoples to get a better understanding of how such bird-caused fires spread in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Some birds in Australia use smoldering sticks to spread wildfires and flush out smaller birds, insects, frogs and other prey, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology.
This fire-spreading behavior isn’t a new discovery, the authors of the study say. Australia’s indigenous peoples have long spoken of “firehawks” — a generic term for the black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcon (Falco berigora) — intentionally spreading fires in the country’s tropical savannas. But much of the examples remain fragmented.
So the researchers compiled observations and anecdotes from scientific reports, firefighters and Aboriginal peoples to get a better understanding of how such bird-caused fires spread in Australia’s Northern Territory. Some compelling examples came from the co-authors of the study.
Co-author and former firefighter Dick Eussen, for instance, was fighting a blaze at the Ranger uranium mine near Kakadu, Northern Territory, in the 1980s when he was alerted to a new blaze on the unburned side of the road.
“He drove over and put it out, noting a whistling kite flying about 20 meters [66 feet] in front of him with a smoking stick in its talons,” the authors write in the study. “It dropped the stick and smoke began to curl from the dry grass, starting a spot fire that had to be immediately extinguished. In all, he put out seven fires, all caused by the kites.”
Nathan Ferguson, also a co-author and officer-in-charge of a fire station in the Barkly Tablelands, initially discounted reports of fire-spreading by birds. But after years of experience he “has learned to incorporate the possibility of avian fire-spreading as a variable in bushfire management,” the authors write. In 2016, for example, Ferguson observed a few kites “successfully seizing burning sticks in their beaks, sometimes switching them to their talons, transporting them over 50 meters [164 feet], dropping them, and, thus, igniting unburned grass.”
The study also quotes experiences and observations of several indigenous peoples. In one such account, in Douglas Lockwood’s 1963 autobiography I, the Aboriginal, the indigenous Australian Waipuldanya says: “Not only the hawks used the ruse of deliberate grass fires as an aid to hunting. We often did so ourselves, especially towards the end of the long dry season when food was scarce and ten-feet [3-meter] tall speargrass, which burnt readily, was a natural haven for game. It is possible that our forefathers learnt this trick from the birds.”
Overall, most instances of fire-spreading by birds seem to be deliberate, the authors write, and some other experts agree. By spreading fires to unburned areas, the birds force more prey to flee and become easy targets for their next meal.
“There’s a purpose,” Robert Gosford, a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. “There’s an intent to say, okay, there are several hundred of us there, we can all get a meal.”
Although it is hard to say how common such bird-caused fires are, scientific acceptance of such fire-spreading would help in better planning of fire management and conservation efforts, the authors write.
“Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration,” they add.