Plants and Animals

Australian Raptors May Be Playing With Fire

January 15, 2016 | by Stephen Luntz

Photo credit: Black kites such as this one could be spreading lightning-initiated fires to additional territory. Alexius Sutandio/Shutterstock

Two scientific conferences have heard evidence that at least two Australian birds have learned to use fire, picking up smoldering sticks and dropping them in unburnt territory. The behavior has not been photographed, but numerous sightings have been reported, and is woven into the culture of local Indigenous communities.

Astonishingly, it is only a few decades since textbooks confidently proclaimed that humans were the only tool-making species. In 1960, Jane Goodall's ground-breaking reports of tool use amongst chimpanzees overthrew this theory, and today tool use is studied from dolphins to parrots, with crows revealing a sophistication that outshines many humans.

Fire propagation, however, is considered a bright line marking humans apart from animals. Except that is, by the fourteen rangers interviewed by Bob Gosford, and many Australian Aboriginal people in north-central Australia, who say birds use it too.

Gosford is a lawyer whose extensive work with Indigenous people in central Australia inspired an interest in their culture. In particular, Gosford became fascinated by Aboriginal knowledge of birds. He has done two years of a Masters degree on the topic at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, and become a regular at scientific conferences on anthropology and ornithology.

Gosford started to hear reports of black kites (Milvus migrans) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) picking up sticks burning at one end and dropping them into unburnt territory. The accounts came both from Indigenous people in northern Australia and from non-indigenous firefighters, park rangers and people charged with conducting early dry season burns to prevent the build-up of flammable material.

Scattered reports of fire carrying exist for other birds, but most attention is on brown falcons (above) and black kites. Bob Gosford.

Gosford is working on collecting the evidence into a paper for peer review, and presented it late last year at the Raptor Research Foundation and the Association for Fire Ecology's annual conferences. Meanwhile he is seeking further accounts, both within Australia and of birds are doing something similar in African or American savannahs with matching ecologies.

The activity makes evolutionary sense, Gosford told IFLScience, because fires provide both species with a major food source. “Reptiles, frogs and insects rush out from the fire, and there are birds that wait in front, right at the foot of the fire, waiting to catch them,” Gosford said. Small fires often attract so many birds that there is insufficient fleeing prey for all, so a bird that was being beaten to its lunch might benefit from starting a new fire with less competition.

Black kites are one of the birds that get close to fire fronts to catch fleeing animals. Bob Gosford

Brown falcons specialize in eating snakes, and have a lot of protection on their legs and feet against bites. Gosford told IFLScience that this might also help them avoid getting burned. The reports suggest arsonist raptors can carry sticks at least 50 meters (150 feet) without the fire going out or singeing the bird, and possibly 200 to 500 meters (660 to 1,640 feet), explaining cases where small blazes have unexpectedly jumped fire breaks.

Gosford hopes publicity will encourage anyone visiting relevant areas to keep cameras handy in the hope photographic evidence can confirm the behavior.

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