Firebirds: Fire is not Just a Human Thing

So You Think You’re So Smart? is a series of articles showing we humans are not so much smarter nor more unique than animals as we like to think.


Two ways in which humans proudly distinguish themselves from other animals is our ability to make tools and our control and use of fire.

For a long time Aboriginal people in Australia have been using grassland fires to hunt by flushing out the wildlife in the savanna grasslands with the fire and smoke. We have recently understood the importance of natural fires from lightning to preserve fire dependent habitats and shape the landscape. So today controlled burns are used for preservation of certain habitats and to reduce fuel build up (leaves and debris) to prevent large, hot, unmanageable wildfires. Humans also use fire to cook their meals.

Well, it is time for humans to step aside and make room for birds. They have been using fire for a long time. Humans are just now starting to figure out that birds have shattered that uniquely human claim.

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)

It has been known for some time that birds and other animals will take advantage of wildfires. These fire-foragers gather in the hundreds at the front of fires when they see flames or smoke. Mostly raptors but other species will sit and wait ahead of the moving flames for animals like insects, reptiles and mammals to run out from the brush fleeing the fire. They let dinner come to them. Others have been seen eating burnt carcasses of mammals and reptiles who did not make it. So they enjoy a cooked meal. These kinds of behavior have been reported in East and West Africa, Brazil, and in the United States in Texas and Florida, to name a few.

Scientists are just now figuring out that some birds in Australia are taking advantage of fires in the same way, but helping it along.

For a very long time it has been known among Aboriginal people in Australia that birds, namely Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and BrownFalcon (Falco berigora), spread fires. They refer to them as ‘‘firehawks”. These birds take advantage of an existing fire and pick up burning sticks to transport fire (the tool) to an unburned location and drop it to start another fire (control and use of fire). This way they force even more prey out of the grasses and into their mouths.

Black Kite (Milvus migrans) one of the “firehawks”

The native people talked about it often. They even reenact the behavior in some religious ceremonies. Of course non-native people and scientists dismissed it as just stories. Now they are taking another look.

On first observation, when they realized the birds were actually carrying burning sticks in the beaks or talons, flying over and dropping them into unburned dry grasses they dismissed it as just an accident. They obviously picked up the stick by mistake and dropped it realizing it was hot.

Now they are rethinking it again. A recent study “Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia” shows it is no accident. The behavior is intentional. The birds have been seen doing it alone and with large groups of birds. In groups it seems to be a couple individual that do the fire-spreading while the others wait in position. They wait for the the fire to start and the hunt to begin. After starting the fire the “firehawks” fly out in front of it with their mate or the group and wait for the animals to start running.

In one instance one of the authors of the study, Eussen, got to witness it firsthand when he was a firefighter at the Ranger Uranium Mine near Kakadu, in the Northern Territory.

One afternoon, while he was ensuring that a grass fire did not leap across a highway, he observed fire-foraging activities of both Whistling and Black Kites. Though the fire burned itself out, Eussen was alerted to a new blaze on the unburnt side of the road. He drove over and put it out, noting a Whistling Kite flying about 20 meters in front of him with a smoking stick in its talons. It dropped the stick and smoke began to curl from the dry grass, starting a spot fire that had to be immediately extinguished. In all, he put out seven fires, all caused by the kites. On that occasion, approximately 25 kites were foraging at the edge of the dying fire, but only two were adept at transporting smoking sticks. One repeatedly swooped at a stick, only lifting it a meter or less before dropping it.”

While there are still skeptics and researchers want to do more detailed studies It is clear that the stories of birds starting fires as a tool for hunting is true and is intentional. This raises the question as to whether other birds in other parts of the world have been shaping the landscape with fires. It has even been speculated that perhaps people got the idea to use fire to hunt from the birds. We are always pleased at Forgotten Nations when scientists confirm what we have always known, the value, intelligence and resourcefulness of animals.

Not bad for small brains. I guess size doesn’t matter.

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