Claim: Birds of Prey Deliberately Setting Wildfires

January 15, 2018 in News by RBN Staff


Source: Watts Up With That? | Guest essay by 

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)

Black Kite (Milvus migrans) – one of the species accused of setting fires. By Mayukhghose (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

So much for fire control – JoNova reports that raptors have been photographed congregating on the edge of large Australian bushfires, picking up burning sticks, and deliberately setting new spot fires in advance of the main blaze to flush out small mammals and other prey. This discovery potentially has profound implications for fire management in places like California.

Burn, Baby, Burn: Australian Birds Steal Fire to Smoke Out Prey

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | January 9, 2018 11:23am ET

Grassland fires that are deadly and devastating events for many kinds of wildlife are a boon to certain types of birds known as fire foragers. These opportunists prey on animals fleeing from a blaze, or scavenge the remains of creatures that succumbed to the flames and the smoke.

But in Australia, some fire-foraging birds are also fire starters.

Three species of raptors — predatory birds with sharp beaks and talons, and keen eyesight — are widely known not only for lurking on the fringes of fires but also for snatching up smoldering grasses or branches and using them to kindle fresh flames, to smoke out mammal and insect prey.

Scientists recently collected and evaluated reports from Aboriginal and nonindigenous people of these so-called firehawks — black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) — to better understand this unusual behavior, and to evaluate its implications for fire management in regions where the birds are active, the researchers wrote in a new study.

Aboriginal people in some parts of northern Australia referenced the fire-spreading actions of firehawks in sacred rituals and noted numerous sightings of the firehawks. In total, the study authors identified 12 Aboriginal groups in which people described firsthand sightings of raptors deliberately setting new fires with smoldering brands salvaged from existing fires, acting on their own and cooperating with other birds.

Read more (contains photographs):

The abstract of the referenced study;

Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia

Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland. 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. Via ethno-ornithological workshops and controlled field experiments with land managers, our collaborative research aims to situate fire-spreading as an important factor in fire management and fire ecology. In a broader sense, better understanding of avian fire-spreading, both in Australia and, potentially, elsewhere, can contribute to theories about the evolution of tropical savannas and the origins of human fire use.

Read more:

I’ve personally seen Aussie raptors do phenomenally clever things. Australia used to have a serious problem with introduced cane toads. The toads are toxic, so they spread like crazy, the predators which would normally keep such a pest under control all died when they tried to eat the toads.

Then somewhere, somewhen, an Australian bird figured out how to eat the toads without getting poisoned – they flip the toads over and eat out their stomachs, leaving the toxic parts of the flesh uneaten.

Nowadays cane toads are a lot rarer, and in toad season it is not unusual to find dried out toad corpses with no stomachs.

I have never seen a bird deliberately spreading fire in the way described by the study – but it never occurred to me to hang around and observe, on the few occasions I found myself uncomfortably close to a dangerous fire. From what I have personally seen of Australian birds using sticks as tools, and other highly intelligent behaviour, I think this claim is credible.

If Australian raptors have learned to use fire to flush out prey, perhaps birds in other fire prone places like California also deliberately start spot fires using embers from other fires. I suggest this possibility is worth investigating, because if birds in your neighbourhood help fires jump fire breaks, this needs to be considered when preparing local fire management plans.