Wildfires are known to attract certain birds of prey. These birds aren’t looking to warm their feathers; they’re hoping their next meal will come from the insects and small mammals fleeing the blaze.
Some raptors have even been reported to spread fires themselves.
A study published in December’s Journal of Ethnobiology set out to investigate reports of this interesting bird behavior in Northern Australia, where locals consider it commonplace.
Wildfires can be helpful to the landscape—flushing prey for hunters, keeping native ecosystems in balance, and clearing out fuel loads to keep future fires more constrained. But they can also be destructive, especially when they encroach on homes, herds of livestock, or Aboriginal sacred sites.
Photo: Dick Eussen (source).
Despite the beliefs of locals, officials in these fire-prone areas remain skeptical about the reality of avian fire-spreading. This arises from a lack of scientific data on the subject—no surprise, because of the dangers of doing research at the edge of an active wildfire. Although ornithologists acknowledge sightings of raptors carrying lit kindling near wildfires, many hold that this behavior must be unintentional. Instead, they argue, raptors diving to catch prey near a fire may accidentally end up with a smoldering stick caught in their beak, which could then ignite a fire when later dropped.
This skepticism may result in real harm in areas where birds really are interfering with fire-fighting efforts, as is suspected in Northern Australia. Most, if not all, Australian Aboriginal groups in this area have significant traditional ecological knowledge and cultural traditions centered around firehawks. And for land managers, Aboriginal or not, who deal with bushfires in the area, the interference from these avian fire-spreaders is well-known. For them, the lack of acknowledgement and support from officials can result in ineffective fire management strategies.
Researchers thus set out to understand and document the true extent of raptors’ fire-spreading behavior. They compiled observations from witnesses in the area, existing scientific literature, and their own lives. Witnesses were identified via responses to posts in the blog Northern Myth and a mention in the Tennant and District Times. Observational accounts were compiled through formal interviews in person, by phone, and by email.
As the researchers expected, witnesses were hard to come by. The vast majority were those with extensive experience with wildfires, especially firefighters. The researchers excluded all vague or second-hand reports, as well as any accounts gathered from Aboriginal people that may have infringed on their right to control access to sacred knowledge involving the land.
Though the reports were convincing, they were sparse, amounting to only seven from non-Aboriginal informants and 12 from Aboriginal groups, none of which were accompanied by photo or video evidence. Some observers referred to the fire-spreading behavior as common, while others reported seeing it only once during an entire career. One group of land stewards admitted to carrying shotguns in order to shoot down the fire-spreading birds to protect their livestock.
The researchers explain, “typically, non-Aboriginal people in the region have heard of fire-spreading secondhand (for example, we were told that tour guides to Kakadu National Park mention it to visitors), but quite rare is an informant who has unequivocally witnessed it and can recount convincing details under close scrutiny.”
These “convincing details” are what skeptics are waiting for. Empirical observations, or better yet, direct tests, are needed to confirm this compelling claim with scientific rigor. Resource managers agree that scientific acceptance of avian fire-spreading would allow them to more legitimately consider it as a variable in their work.
The researchers report plans for a series of controlled experiments. In these, fire managers will light fires in collaboration with field biologists, who will then be able to record and quantify fire-spreading behavior by the raptors. The researchers will work with Aboriginal rangers, too, to incorporate scientific methods in an approach that respects indigenous ecological knowledge.
Together, these different forms of evidence will complete a cohesive story about the true nature of firehawks. Do they mean to start fires? Are they just accidental arsonists? Although the scientific community is unsure, these compiled reports, in conjunction with these new studies, will help to settle this question once and for all.