A Brown Falcon is one of the birds of prey who spread fires in Australia.
Australia’s Northern Territory has adapted to fire- large areas of tropical savannah burn every year and the ecosystem evolved to benefit from it. Aborigines have used “pyrotechnology” for at least 50,000 years to aid in hunting, land management, and catastrophic fire minimization. These ancient skills are being reemployed to prevent high intensity fires caused by climate change.
The animals in this environment have adapted too. Certain raptors wait at the fire’s edge and swoop down and feast on the insects, rodents, and small reptiles trying to flee the blaze. But recently the world has learned more. Turns out, the birds are spreading the fires themselves.
Australian Aborigines call them Firehawks. The Firehawks pick up smoldering twigs and grasses in their claws and carry them to places that aren’t burning yet.
A recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology details how besides humans and lightning, raptors are the third way fires are spread in the Northern Australian wilderness.
“We’re not discovering anything,” cautions co-author Mark Bonta, a National Geographic grantee and geographer at Penn State University. “Most of the data that we’ve worked with is collaborative with Aboriginal peoples… They’ve known this for probably 40,000 years or more.” (1)
Co-author Bob Gosford, an Australian indigenous-rights lawyer and ornithologist, was inspired to study this phenomenon after reading this passage:
“I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles. “When that area was burnt out, the process was repeated elsewhere” wrote Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts in I, the Aboriginal (1964). (1)
Innumnerable indigenous people have witnessed the Firehawks spreading fires. “When a fire burns into a creek line and burns out, brown falcons have also been observed collecting fire brands and dropping them on the other unburnt side of the creek in order to continue the fire,” according to a collection of Aboriginal accounts published in 2009. (2)
Gosford has collected firsthand accounts of the behavior since 2011. Though he hasn’t witnessed it firsthand yet, some of his firefighter co-authors have. (1) “In the case of co-authors Nathan Ferguson’s and Dick Eussen’s accounts, they saw the behavior repeatedly and at close range,” the study’s lead author, Mark Bonta said. Photos or video remain scarce as observing the birds so close can be difficult and dangerous. The research is ongoing. (2)
Locals sometimes refer to the birds as “shit hawks” because they swoop in and steal smoldering brands from human cooking fires and make off with them in order to go start fires of their own. (2)
The Australian Aborigines take a different view of the birds and have always regarded them as part of the natural order.
“Aboriginal people have accumulated an unparalleled understanding of this ecosystem and the animals that inhabit it- knowledge that is in danger of being lost by younger generations”, Bonta explained. “Our work is a collaborative effort to help valorize indigenous knowledge of birds, particularly as known to the older generations…. this intricate ecosystem knowledge is typically unparalleled…” (2)
These are the Firehawks
This is the Black kite (Milvus migrans)
These are Whistling Kites (Haliastur sphenurus)
This is the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora)
1. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/wildfires-birds-animals-australia/ (also title credit)