It has now been seemingly confirmed that birds of prey in Australia are not only responsible for the spread of wildfires, but that they are doing it deliberately. This means that humans are not unique in having harnessed fire and were perhaps even beaten to it by these avian arsonists.
This is not the first time that evidence that raptors might have been harnessing the red flower for their own use. Back in 2016 ornithologist Bob Gosford reported multiple accounts that both black kites (Milvus migrans) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) were spreading wildfires in northern Australia, something that slotted in with indigenous Aboriginal knowledge about the birds. But many other experts were skeptical about the behavior.
It seemed obvious that the birds were indeed spreading fire, it was just that some did not believe that there was any intent behind it and that it was nothing more than accidental on the raptors' behalf.
In response to the criticism, Gosford doubled down, spending the last year collecting even more eyewitness accounts of birds of prey deliberately carrying burning sticks and embers to set alight other bits of grassland. In his latest paper, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, Gosford details another 20 eyewitness reports of this behavior, as well as adding the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) to the select group of fire-starting birds.
It is thought that the birds take advantage of lightning strikes that spark wildfires in northern Australia. This is a natural process that frequently occurs, and the plants and landscape are well adapted to the blazes that ravage the area. The raptors have been observed picking up burning twigs from these blazes and then flying up to 50 meters (165 feet) away to unburnt patches of grassland and forest, where they deliberately drop them, spreading the fire.
Following this, the birds will then sit at the advancing edge of the fire, and wait for small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects to flee the flames, picking off the hapless critters as they make a run for it.
This latest paper has collated a whole new raft of accounts. One such report comes from a former firefighter Dick Eussen, who was fighting a fire near Kakadu, in the Northern Territory. He recounts how as they were tackling one, they realized another had spread up on the other side of the road and found a whistling kite sat in a tree holding a smoking stick. During that call out, the firefighters had to extinguish a total of seven new fires started by the birds.
This behavior could explain why fires suddenly appear to jump fire breaks, and the researchers are now asking for similar reports from other parts of the world, such as Africa and the Americas, to further our understanding of both humanity's relationship with fire, and the historic spread of savannas.
[H/T: New Scientist]