Australian Aboriginal lore is replete with references to birds carrying fire, and some traditional ceremonies even depict the behaviour.
Now ornithologists have collected accounts from witnesses across the savannas of Australia’s far north, known as the Top End, suggesting three Australian birds of prey species use smouldering branches to spread fires and scare prey into their waiting talons.
Black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) all regularly congregate near the edges of bushfires, taking advantage of an exodus of small lizards, mammals, birds and insects – but it appears that some may have learnt not only to use fire to their advantage, but also to control it.
“At or around an active fire front, birds – usually black kites, but sometimes brown falcons – will pick up a firebrand or a stick not much bigger than your finger and carry it away to an unburnt area of grass and drop it in there to start a new fire,” says Bob Gosford, an ornithologist with the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, who led the documentation of witness accounts. “It’s not always successful, but sometimes it results in ignition.”
“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 behaviour, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory,” write the authors behind the find in the Journal of Ethnobiology.
Gosford points to two Dreaming fire ceremonies in particular – the Lorrkon and Yabuduruwa ceremonies from the Arnhem Land region of the Territory – which incorporate scenes involving the re-enactment of birds spreading fire from places to place.
“Most of the Aboriginal groups that we talked to in the NT, particularly in the Top End, are entirely comfortable with the idea that this happens. … for a lot of people, it’s accepted as a fact,” says Gosford.
European scientists, however, have shown a reluctance to accept the observations of Aboriginal Australians, which explains why this seemingly widespread behaviour has not been scientifically documented until now.
To this end, Gosford and his co-authors, including geographer Mark Bonta at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, US, spent six years collecting more than 20 witness accounts from traditional owners, land managers and Aboriginal rangers across the Top End, suggesting that the behaviour may be very widespread. “We’ve got records from the eastern coast, in the tropics of Queensland, right across to Western Australia. There appears to be a particular cluster through the savanna woodlands of central northern Australia,” Gosford says.
This is a “fascinating phenomenon”, comments Alex Kacelnik an expert on animal tool use at the University of Oxford in the UK, adding that “many species may have learned to respond to natural fire by escaping from it or exploiting it to hunt fleeing prey, but these hawks are showing a form of fire control.” This is the first he as heard of this in a non-human animals, he says.
The behaviour adds to the evidence that birds are very good at “generating innovative solutions to foraging problems,” says Kacelnik, who speculates that the skill could be periodically rediscovered in different locations and then copied by younger hawks in the same population.
Gosford says the next stage of their research will involve setting controlled fires with the help of Aboriginal land managers to try to capture the avian firebugs in action. “We are looking at gathering as much data on as many fire fronts as we can, and hope to record the behaviour on film.”
Up until now humans and lightning have been regarded as the only vectors of fire in Australia, but there’s now “cause to re-examine our understanding of fire history and how fire works in the landscape,” he says.
This article was first published by Cosmos Magazine on 12 January 2018.