Now the paper at hand is far from conclusive, but it raises questions that really do deserve investigation, for it suggests that at least three species of Australian raptors, jointly called “firehawks,” spread brushfires to flush out prey. If true, that would mean that birds either “use fire” or “weaponize fire”—something known only in our own species.
It’s long been known that predatory birds from many places hang around the edges of spreading fires to snap up prey fleeing incineration or to feast on burnt corpses. But what’s new about this paper by Mark Bonta et al. in the Journal of Ethnobiology (reference below, free text and pdf) is the description of raptors carrying in their beaks or talons burning sticks from places on fire to places yet unburned, igniting new fires (they spread quickly) and flushing out more prey to eat. The study was conducted in Northern Australia, and the behavior hasn’t been described in other areas.
First, here, from Cosmos Magazine, are some pictures of raptors in Australia hanging around the edges of fires. The photos were taken by an author of the paper.
There are three ways the authors document this behavior, though none are satisfactory to those who want convincing evidence that raptors start fires. First, they collected twenty cases from twelve aboriginal tribes of “local knowledge” that birds do this. While these shouldn’t be dismissed, there’s always the possibility that these aren’t eyewitness reports but constitute local lore or tradition that may be spread among populations.
Second, the authors compiled six first-hand accounts, some of them published, from people who said they saw birds spreading fires by carrying firebrands from one place to another that was not yet on fire. Here’s an example:
Two eyewitnesses report intentional, cooperative fire-spreading. Bob White (Table 1:Record 16), while fighting a bushfire in the Roper River, NT region, watched a small group of raptors—presumably Black Kites—pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley. ‘‘MJ,’’ a Kimberley, WA cattle station caretaker manager (Table 1:Record 17; Supplementary Report 7), saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places. The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station’s infrastructure. The observer later saw the larger group of hundreds of kites that had gathered for the fire actively pursuing prey in the intentionally burned area.
Finally, two of the authors (Eussen and Ferguson) directly observed “fire spreading,” though sadly didn’t document it with photos or video. That’s understandable, though, for, as the authors note, when one is busy dealing with fire—the men are fire officers—or avoiding it, your mind is on other things! Plus the spreading behavior is not that common. Here are two of the authors’ descriptions:
Another fire-spreading encounter occurred at the Ranger Uranium Mine near Kakadu, NT, where Eussen was a firefighter (Eussen and Angelo 2003; Martin 2003, 2004; Table 1:Record 15). One afternoon, while he was ensuring that a grass fire did not leap across a highway, he observed fire-foraging activities of both Whistling and Black Kites. Though the fire burned itself out, Eussen was alerted to a new blaze on the unburnt side of the road. He drove over and put it out, noting a Whistling Kite flying about 20 meters in front of him with a smoking stick in its talons. 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. On that occasion, approximately 25 kites were foraging at the edge of the dying fire, but only two were adept at transporting smoking sticks. One repeatedly swooped at a stick, only lifting it a meter or less before dropping it.
While Ferguson’s most recent fire-spreading observation in March 2017 (Table 1:Record 18) involved unsuccessful attempts to transport burning sticks, previous observations that stand out most to him, from September 2016 and around 2000-2001 (Table 1:Records 19 and 20), were of a few kites, within gatherings of hundreds during very hot fires, successfully seizing burning sticks in their beaks, sometimes switching them to their talons, transporting them over 50 meters, dropping them, and, thus, igniting unburned grass. Like several other non-Aboriginal observers, and in concordance with Aboriginal IEK, Ferguson is adamant that fire-spreading behavior, whether successful or not in starting new fires, is intentional.
So this is what we have, and it’s pretty much hearsay. Yet given the consilience of all the reports, I tend to believe it. I say “tend”, because I’d be a lot more confident if I saw video or pictures of this behavior occurring. Given its frequency, that should be possible, and there’s clearly work to be done here—especially given the fame that would accrue to anyone who “proved” that animals can use fire in this way.
Now just a picture or video of a raptor carrying a flaming stick isn’t sufficient, for there have to be “controls”: do raptors around fires also pick up nonburning sticks? (I can’t see why they would, but it could happen.) If not, and if there’s, say, a good video showing one (or preferably more) birds carrying and dropping firebrands, I’d start to be convinced.
Further, if fire-spreading is real, is it learned or somehow evolved and coded in the genes? (Or both: a bird could have the propensity to spread fire but do so only when that propensity is triggered by seeing another bird do it.) That would be harder to test, but in principle could be seen as purely hard-wired if a hand-reared bird who had never seen the behavior was seen to perform it.
I really want to believe this is true because it’s so cool, and because it baffles me a bit how a bird could learn to do this, for it would have to connect a lot of dots to take a burning firebrand and start a new fire somewhere else. But raptors aren’t dumb. I hope some Aussie researchers will take up this problem!
Bonta, M. et al. 2017. Intentional fire-spreading by “firehawk” raptors in northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology 37(4):700-718. 2017. https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700