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Avian Firestarters

Australia has recently experienced devastating bushfires following a heatwave. The fires have threatened people, property and wildlife. To make matters worse, the authorities may be dealing with the activities of flying arsonists in the shape of what have been dubbed "firehawk raptors".

Birds Drop Burning Sticks

A new study has described the behaviour of Australian birds which deliberately spread fires using burning sticks! At least three species – the black kite, whistling kite and brown falcon – are thought to be behaving in this way. The study took into consideration the observations of the indigenous population who say they have been aware of the avian arsonists for thousands of years. However, scientists are sceptical about their observations.

Managing the Landscape

The international team which conducted the study have reported that Aboriginal rangers dealing with bushfires always take into account the risks which are posed by the raptors. They feel that scepticism on the part of the authorities regarding the birds is hindering landscape management and restoration.

The team have emphasized that there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence that the birds are, indeed, deliberately starting fires. Such behaviour does sound incredibly unlikely but when it comes to nature, truth can be stranger than fiction.

"We're not discovering anything," one of the team, geographer Mark Bonta from Penn State Altoona, has said.

He has explained that the majority of the data that they have collated was supplied by the Aboriginal peoples and that they appear to have been aware of the phenomena for at least 40,000 years.

Flushing out a Meal

According to the research team, firehawk raptors congregate in their hundreds along burning fire fronts. They will then fly into active fires to collect smouldering sticks and transport these up to a kilometre away to areas that the flames have yet to reach. It is thought that the birds will do this to flush out prey. Some of the researchers have reported that they have witnessed the birds for themselves. Prey species are driven towards the raptors by the flames and the birds enjoy a feeding frenzy.

The study was inspired by the 1964 autobiography of Indigenous doctor and activist, Phillip
Waipuldanya Roberts. He described seeing a hawk picking up a smouldering stick and droping it on a patch of dry grass. The bird waited until an exodus of scorched rodents and reptiles emerged from the flames.

Do the Birds Know What They are Doing?

The big question is, do the birds really know what they are doing or are the fires that they start merely accidental? The researchers believe that the birds do understand what they are doing and that they coordinate their efforts. The behaviour has been reported too many times to be accidental. The birds are exhibiting deliberate intent and have clearly learnt that a fire delivers an easy meal.

The starting of fires has always been considered a uniquely human behaviour but maybe birds are getting in on the act.


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