In Australia, Arsonists May Have Wings

A whistling kite hovering over Queensland, Australia. Whistling kites are the so-called “firehawks,” said to spread bush fires to drive out prey.

DARWIN, Australia — When the dry season spreads over the tropical savannas of Australia’s Northern Territory, rangers start watching for the so-called firehawks: flocks of black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons that hunt near bushfires, snapping up small animals flushed out by the smoke and sparks.

If a fire begins to flicker out, locals claim, some of the birds will keep it going by carrying burning sticks to new locations.

“We get a lot of humbug” from the birds, said Robert Redford, a ranger who is an Aboriginal Australian. “We make firebreaks, and sometimes that bird makes another fire and he makes a lot of trouble.”

“He do a lot of damage for us sometimes, and rangers have a hard time firefighting with all that.”

The idea that birds intentionally manipulate fire has long been greeted with skepticism in scientific circles. But a recent paper published in Journal of Ethnobiology gathers reports that all three species do spread wildfires for hunting purposes.

Over the course of two years, Bob Gosford, an ornithologist, and Mark Bonta, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona, and their colleagues team collected older ethnographic reports and conducted detailed interviews with six eyewitnesses, including Aboriginal firefighters and academics.

They told stories of raptors stealing burning twigs from cook fires and transporting the brands up to a kilometer (about a half mile) away. One firefighter reported seeing a flock spread a wildfire all the way up a small valley.

A cattle station caretaker described a small group of raptors moving a fire front across a river, resulting in a blaze that wiped out much of the station infrastructure.

Stories like these are part of the reason black kites and other raptors are illegally shot on sight by irate station managers, Dr. Bonta said in an interview.

Taken together, the accounts suggested that the birds act primarily when wildfires are going out because they have reached a natural barrier or through human intervention.

It’s unclear how common the behavior is — or whether it exists at all. As yet, no conclusive photographic or video documentation exists.

Even without direct evidence, though, formerly skeptical ornithologists have found the combination of ethnographic research and firsthand accounts compelling.

Raptors are already well known for “smart” hunting approaches, including following human vehicles that might flush prey to dropping stones on tough eggs, said Steve Debus, an adjunct lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia.

Black kites, one of the species implicated in fire-spreading, have a reputation for being particularly clever. “They seem intelligent and quick to learn ways of obtaining food,” Dr. Debus said. “They’ve been known to take food from schoolyards, even from children’s hands, and use bread scraps at picnic areas to bait fish within capture range.”

Dr. Bonta believes that fire-spreading is not observed more often because only a few birds in any large flock understand how to do it.

“It’s notable that we did not receive credible reports from casual tourists or others who might have simply gotten lucky,” he said. “It appears that one needs to have spent a lot of time in the bush, and a fair amount of it close to wildfires.”

Aboriginal peoples, on the other hand, know the bush intimately and are no strangers to wildfire. The idea that some birds spread fires is common among indigenous groups in the Northern Territory, Dr. Bonta said.

Credit...Ben Tweedie/Corbis, via Getty Images

Mr. Redford pointed out that the birds are ceremonially important. According to Aboriginal lore, human knowledge of fire dates to the Dreaming, the time before time, when the firehawk brought embers to people in a burning stick.

In complex Dreaming ceremonies, like the hollow log ritual Lorrkon, those with special knowledge re-enact the story.

“We still repeat, same way, what the old people did,” Mr. Redford said. “He used to play with that firestick, too, that bird. That’s feeding time for him.”

Fire-spreading birds came to mainstream attention in 1964 with the publication of “I, The Aboriginal,” the purported autobiography (it was ghostwritten) of indigenous activist Waipuldanya, which described firehawks spreading wildfires to hunt.

While the account raised scholarly interest, no follow-up research appeared. Many scientists dismissed accounts of fire-spreading as accidental, a misperception about birds mistakenly snatching smoldering material.

Firehawks have also tended to be regarded as folklore by government officials, Dr. Bonta said, becoming scapegoats for fires that have been improperly managed.

When Mr. Gosford reread his copy of the book in 2011, however, the section on fire-spreading caught his eye. As an amateur ornithologist and lawyer working on indigenous cases in the Northern Territory, Mr. Gosford said, he’d developed a deep respect for Aboriginal knowledge of the landscape.

He wrote a pair of blog posts on the subject that received media attention in 2016. He and Dr. Bonta, a frequent correspondent, decided it was time to collaborate on a peer-reviewed paper.

Dr. Bonta and Mr. Gosford hope to launch a three-week research expedition in May, where they’ll work with fire rangers in hopes of documenting the behavior firsthand. They’ll be accompanied by volunteer birders with cameras and with drones.

The team also plans on collaborating with Aboriginal authors on future publications, part of an effort to incorporate indigenous ecological knowledge into ornithology.

Fire has long been a central land management tool for Aboriginal people; carefully controlled burns shaped forests and savannas for hunting and agriculture.

While the indigenous practice of controlled burns was largely suppressed during Australia’s colonial period, legal decisions that delivered land back to Aboriginal ownership have fueled a return to traditional strategies that more closely mimic natural processes.

For these strategies to be successful, Dr. Bonta said, officials need to take local expertise seriously about animal habits, including firehawks.

“Aboriginal people — like the peoples of New Guinea and Amazonia and many other places — often have far better knowledge of local flora and fauna than outsiders, built up over the course of millennia,” Dr. Bonta said.

“What possible reason could there be to not put enormous effort into helping them preserve what they know and collaborate to improve our overall understanding of nature?”

Perhaps the Australia’s firehawks are enacting a process similar to the one humanity used to control fires. Or perhaps, as the Aboriginal people say, the birds’ activities lit the spark for people in the first place.

“I’m glad that others are now talking about co-evolution and learning from birds,” Dr. Bonta said. “Fire may not be so uniquely human after all.”

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