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.