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.
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.
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.