Avian ar­son­ists

Australian Geographic - - Geobuzz - with Dr Karl Kruszel­nicki

AUS­TRALIA IS WELL-ADAPTED to fire – partly due to hav­ing been sculpted by it. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have long used fire to man­age the land. Their con­trolled burns shaped the Aus­tralian land­scape for for­ag­ing, agri­cul­ture and hunt­ing.

Now we’re learn­ing – or re-learn­ing – that birds can also fan fires. Aus­tralia’s Indigenous peo­ple have known this for a long time. In their 65,000 or so years on the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent, they’ve ac­cu­mu­lated ri­tu­als and oral le­gends that re­fer to birds set­ting fires. These mostly come from the Aus­tralian trop­ics where the black kite, whistling kite and brown fal­con are known to lo­cal Indigenous pop­u­la­tions as ‘fire­hawks’.

One of our ear­li­est writ­ten ac­counts of such ar­son­ist birds was in I, the Abo­rig­i­nal, a 1962 bi­og­ra­phy of the Indigenous ac­tivist Waip­ul­danya, also known as Phillip Roberts. “I have seen a hawk pick up a smoul­der­ing stick in his claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mass ex­o­dus of scorched and fright­ened ro­dents and rep­tiles,” he said. “When that area was burnt out, the process was re­peated else­where.”

The ter­ri­fied crea­tures fo­cus on flee­ing the flames, so they don’t pay much at­ten­tion to the fire­hawks cir­cling over­head in their dozens, kept aloft by up­drafts from the fire. The birds keep a close eye on the flame front be­low, and, at just the right mo­ment, zip down from the sky, grab lunch (pos­si­bly de­li­ciously char-grilled) and fly swiftly away from the flames. Fire­hawks are ded­i­cated ar­son­ists. If a fire sput­ters out at a river or a pre­vi­ously burnt patch, the birds have been seen pick­ing up burn­ing sticks and car­ry­ing them dis­tances of up to a kilo­me­tre to restart a blaze. We aren’t sure just when we hu­mans learnt to con­trol fire – some­where between 1 mil­lion and 400,000 years ago. It is pos­si­ble that in some places we learnt from the birds, and in other places they learnt from us.

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