AVIAN ARSON: THE BIRDS THAT START FIRES

‘Fire­hawks’ are rewrit­ing the his­tory of fire on the con­ti­nent as sci­en­tists con­firm Abo­rig­i­nal lore about the only known an­i­mal to in­ten­tion­ally light fires, JOHN PICKRELL writes.

Cosmos - - Ornithology -

HU­MANS AND LIGHT­NING have long been thought to be the only fire starters in Aus­tralia. How­ever, or­nithol­o­gist Bob Gos­ford has come to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion af­ter decades of work­ing with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and con­firm­ing their na­tive bird knowl­edge in a re­cent study.

Pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Eth­no­bi­ol­ogy, the pa­per col­lected wit­ness ac­counts from across Aus­tralia’s far north, which strongly sug­gest that three dif­fer­ent types of rap­tor species use smoul­der­ing branches to spread fires and scare prey into their wait­ing talons.

“This be­hav­iour, of­ten rep­re­sented in sa­cred cer­e­monies, is widely known to lo­cal peo­ple in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory,” Gos­ford and his fel­low re­searchers note in their pa­per.

Over the past few decades, Gos­ford, a lawyer with the Cen­tral Land Coun­cil based in Alice Springs, has gone hunt­ing and walk­ing through­out the ‘Top End’ with lo­cal peo­ple, who would tell him about birds that oc­ca­sion­ally spread fires.

Gos­ford was par­tic­u­larly in­trigued by a pas­sage in a 1964 biog­ra­phy about Phillip Waip­ul­danya Roberts, a mem­ber of the Alawa peo­ple of Arn­hem Land, in the ter­ri­tory’s north-east.

“I have seen a hawk pick up a smoul­der­ing stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away,” he says in the book, “then wait with its mates for the mad ex­o­dus of scorched and fright­ened ro­dents and rep­tiles.”

A few years ago Gos­ford tracked down Roberts’ fam­ily, who con­firmed the pas­sage recorded a well­known be­hav­iour.

Abo­rig­i­nal lore from many parts of the Top End is re­plete with ref­er­ences to birds car­ry­ing fire, and some tra­di­tional cer­e­monies even de­pict the be­hav­iour.

Black kites ( Mil­vus mi­grans), whistling kites Halias­tur sphenu­rus) and brown fal­cons ( Falco berig­ora) all reg­u­larly con­gre­gate near the edges of bush­fires, tak­ing ad­van­tage of an ex­o­dus of small lizards, mam­mals, birds and in­sects. Fur­ther­more, they have ap­par­ently learnt to con­trol it as well.

“At or around an ac­tive fire front, birds – usu­ally black kites but some­times brown fal­cons – will pick up a fire­brand or a stick not much big­ger than your fin­ger and carry it away to an un­burnt area of grass and drop it in there to start a new fire,” says Gos­ford. “It’s not al­ways suc­cess­ful, but some­times it re­sults in ig­ni­tion.”

Gos­ford and his fel­low re­searchers re­port that the birds light these fires in­di­vid­u­ally or as part of a co­op­er­a­tive ef­fort.

Gos­ford points to two Dream­ing fire cer­e­monies in par­tic­u­lar – the ‘Lor­rkon’ and ‘Yabudu­ruwa’ rit­u­als from the Arn­hem Land – that re-en­act birds spread­ing fire from place to place.

“Most of the Abo­rig­i­nal groups that we talked to in the NT, par­tic­u­larly in the Top End, are en­tirely com­fort­able with the idea that this hap­pens,” Gos­ford says. “For a lot of peo­ple, it is ac­cepted as a fact.”

How­ever, Euro­pean sci­en­tists have shown a re­luc­tance to ac­cept the ob­ser­va­tions of Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians, which ex­plains why this seem­ingly wide­spread be­hav­iour has not been sci­en­tif­i­cally doc­u­mented un­til now.

To this end, Gos­ford and his co-au­thors, in­clud­ing ge­og­ra­pher Mark Bonta at Penn State Al­toona in the US, spent six years col­lect­ing more than 20 wit­ness ac­counts from tra­di­tional own­ers, land man­agers and indige­nous rangers across the Top End.

The ac­counts sug­gest fire-start­ing be­hav­iour may be very wide­spread. “We’ve got records from the eastern coast, in the trop­ics of Queens­land, right across to Western Aus­tralia,” Gos­ford says.

“There ap­pears to be a par­tic­u­lar clus­ter through the sa­vanna wood­lands of cen­tral north­ern Aus­tralia.”

It is a “fas­ci­nat­ing phe­nom­e­non”, says Alex Kacel­nik, an ex­pert on an­i­mal tool use at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. “Many species may have learned to re­spond to nat­u­ral fire by es­cap­ing from it or ex­ploit­ing it to hunt flee­ing prey, but these hawks are show­ing a form of fire con­trol.”

It is the first time Kacel­nik has heard of such be­hav­iour in non-hu­man an­i­mals. It adds to the ev­i­dence, he says, that birds are very good at “gen­er­at­ing in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to for­ag­ing prob­lems”. He spec­u­lates the skill could be pe­ri­od­i­cally re­dis­cov­ered in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions and then copied by younger hawks in the same pop­u­la­tion.

Gos­ford says the next stage of re­search will in­volve set­ting con­trolled fires with the help of Abo­rig­i­nal land man­agers so sci­en­tists can cap­ture the avian fire­bugs in ac­tion. “We are look­ing at gath­er­ing as much data on as many fire fronts as we can, and hope to record the be­hav­iour on film.”

There is now “cause to re-ex­am­ine our un­der­stand­ing of fire his­tory and how fire works in the land­scape,” he says.

CREDIT: DICK EUSSEN

Sci­en­tists have ob­served black kites, whistling kites and brown fal­cons spread­ing fire across north­ern Aus­tralia, the first ev­i­dence of such be­hav­iour by non-hu­man an­i­mals.

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