The Birds That Start Fires: Using Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to Understand Animal Behavior

I don’t remember too much from the eighties–other than Nintendo, Sonic, and how cool the Ghostbusters were. But I do remember my aunt (Ledford High School Class of 1988, go panthers!) had a certain “type” as far as her boyfriends were concerned. Since she “babysat” me a lot, I got to meet a few of them. It wasn’t so much what they looked like, but the cars they drove. Each feathery-haired, Magnum PI mustachioed dude had one thing in common . . . a Pontiac Firebird. My aunt’s love of this car was most likely rooted in its prominence in her favorite movie of all time*, the origin of the car’s name is a bit unclear,**, *** but likely refers to the Phoenix—the legendary creature who at the end of its life is consumed by fire, then rises again from its ashes. But as far as firebirds go, Australia has got those muscle cars beat by a mile.

Australian Aborigines have observed some rather unusual behavior that gives an entirely new definition to the term “Firebird.” In Australia, “firehawk is a generic term for either a Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), or Brown Falcon (Falco berigora)—similar to how the term “catamount” is used in eastern North America to refer to anything from a bobcat to a cougar. To outsiders, the name “firehawk” seemed rather whimsical I suppose, but Aboriginal people insisted that the “firehawks” garnered that moniker for good reason as they were seen to carry burning sticks away from fires, to new areas, to star new fires. While this avian behavior has been previously characterized as “accidental” at best, researchers from Australia, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Arizona, through extensive interviews and ethnographic study have now documented anecdotes about the fire-spreading behavior of these birds in the Journal of Ethnobiology.

So what is going on here?

“Firehawks” fly into active fires, pick up smoldering sticks–with either their beaks or their talons–and then carry them to new, different areas and drop them in the brush. Sometimes, these sticks are carried over a kilometer away. Firebird indeed! (Ornithologist Bob Gosford talks about the practice in a 2016 interview).

Black Kites are found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. They have no natural predators outside of the Eurasian eagle-owl, have a wingspan of nearly a meter and a half, and cannot be trusted with matches.

But why are they doing this?

Fire-foraging is seen in many raptor species and is the practice of hanging around outside of burning areas and picking off prey that are attempting to flee. This “laying in wait” strategy is not an uncommon one in the animal kingdom. I am reminded of the quite suspenseful iguana chase scenes in Planet Earth II (these quite tense, so be warned). Small prey flee from burning areas, creating a “prey “rich” environment on the out perimeter of a fire. Many raptor species have been documented circling burning areas, and picking off prey. Being opportunistic and getting your calories when you can is necessary to survive. However, taking the initiative and spreading the fire yourself is quite an advance. And it doesn’t take much to start a fire in northern Australia as climate change has catalyzed worse drought conditions and made fire forecasts more dire.

The Northern Territory of Australia is a an arid landscape. Here, gamba grasses, an invasive speices in the area, spreads in dense bunches. The drought-prone nature of the landscape coupled with the grass’s flammability has increased fire risk in the area.

20 different fire-spreading events are documented in this paper, some of quite impressive scale. Near Howard Springs, hundreds of birds were seen carrying sticks nearly 20 cm long, over 60 m away from a fire in 2000. According to researchers, this event was “successful.” However in 2017, 15 birds near Tennant Creek were quite “unsuccessful” in getting anything going with their sticks.

Animal tool use is fairly well-documented. Chimpanzees use sticks to flush out honey. Orangutans use sticks to dig for termites or to hunt fish. Vultures throw rocks at large eggs to break them open. Elephants use sticks to swat flies. However, resorting to pyromania is not something that we have seen outside of humans. However, this behavior had been documented by Aborigines.

Aboriginal cultures have a long history with fire. Over tens of thousands of years, “fire-stick farming,” the practice of intentionally burning patches of vegetation, have created complex patterns vegetation across the northern Australian landscape. Burning a patch of savanna would then favor the growth of grass in that area, which in turn would attract Kangaroos or Emu, which the people would utilize as a food source. Fire has been used more recently to help restore landscapes to their pre-European state.

“The two methods of making fire. In the foreground lies a killed emu, a stone axe, also a spear and throwing sticks. A family of Dacelo giganteus (Kookaburra) sit on an Indian rubber tree making their ridiculous, hour long “Ha!He!Hi!Ho!Hu! and help pass the time for the Aborigines during the arduous fire making process.” Image and caption from 1857, William Blandowski’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia

The fire-spreading behavior of the “firehawk” was something that had long been observed—when Aborigines would use fire to manage the landscape, they had noted the behavior. Fire-spreading is attributed as the origin story for the Dreaming fire ceremonies and other Aboriginal practices. The intentionality and veracity of the actual fire-spreading behavior of the “firehawks” though, has been an anthropological point of contention for some 50-60 years now.

However, the use of indigenous ecological knowledge, the idea that the people who are from a place, know that place, and have intrinsically valuable insight, is (thankfully) becoming a more robust practice and was crucial to this research. Mark Bonta (lead author) and his collaborators (Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer) made great efforts to collaborate with land managers and indigenous people to document “fire-spreading” behaviors and corroborate claims. Pairing strong empirical methods with the valuation of indigenous knowledge is a powerful tool that will help us better understand our world and has proven invaluable to researchers and policy makers.

“Ethno-ornithological inquiry about birds and fire should be incorporated into anthropological, geographical, and historical investigations of landscape modification; the roles of birds in both religious and secular context are primordial and remain key in these endeavors, though they are too often overlooked.” – Bonta et al. 2017

Between 2011 and 2017, Bonta and colleagues conducted multiple interviews with indigenous people. They also worked with land managers in a collaborative effort to document this behavior. Sadly though, despite all of their efforts, no photo or video evidence of fire-spreading was observed. (BBC, David Attenborough, et al., what are you even doing? Get on this.).

Besides being just an absolutely fascinating natural phenomena, this work has valuable application to fire and natural resource management. Northern Australia is a dry, hot area of the world. Fire management is an issue of paramount concern and if there are avian firestarters flying around, then it is best to know how to plan for that.

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Some notes…

*Yes I know Trans-Ams and Firebirds are a little different.

**Interestingly, Pontiac almost named the car the “Banshee,” but do to associations with funerals and death gave up on that idea.

***It may be rooted in Native American folk tales about the Thunderbird, the great, legendary creature who in Algonquian lore ruled the upper world, and throws lightning at underwater creatures; who in Menominee lore, lives on a great mountain that floats in the western sky. All much cooler and far more awe-inspiring then Neil Young’s drawing (poor taste warning). But of course, there is already the Ford Thunderbird, so either way. Who knows what marketing executives are on about.

Also thanks to Jasmine Muir for resolving some access issues.