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Articles have been popping up with headlines like the Daily Mail's "Birds of prey are starting fires DELIBERATELY: Kites and Falcons are 'intentionally dropping smouldering twigs' to smoke out mice and insects in Australia". The claim is that some Australian birds of prey - specifically Black Kites and Brown Falcons - are picking up bits of burning brush, and dropping them in other areas in order to drive prey out into the open.

There have been anecdotes about this from Australian firefighters, rangers, and Aboriginals for decades, and has supposedly been incorporated into some Aboriginal lore long before that. However, I've only found notable news articles about this going back to 2016, such as this Techly article from Feb 2016.

It appears that the articles are primarily describing anecdotal reports, as excerpts from this 2018 LiveScience article show:

Scientists recently collected and evaluated reports from Aboriginal and nonindigenous people of this so-called firehawks
[...]
Aboriginal people in some parts of northern Australia referenced the fire-spreading actions of firehawks in sacred rituals and noted numerous sightings of the firehawks. In total, the study authors identified 12 Aboriginal groups in which people described firsthand sightings of raptors deliberately setting new fires with smoldering brands salvaged from existing fires, acting on their own and cooperating with other birds.
[...]
Photos and videos of firehawk behavior remain scarce, and it can be challenging to observe the birds while fires are blazing.

So the question is: do Australian birds of prey purposefully use fire/smoke to hunt prey?


My own research

As I looked into this, I found that most of this modern media coverage revolves around a "Lawyer-turned-Ornithologist" named Bob Gosford, whose primary emphasis seems to be on collecting corroborating anecdotal stories and first hand observations about this behavior. This ABC News Article from March 2016 quotes Gosford as he explains that he has been trying to corroborate Aboriginal observations about this for a long time, and that he was about to set off to join a research team to observe these birds.

A 2016 blog post by Kim Moynahan, prompted by the circulation of these articles in 2016, frames Gosford's objective as an attempt to find more anecdotes about this phenomena, with a lesser emphasis on collecting actual evidence.

Conversely, I see that Gosford has been writing blog articles about this, going back to at least 2011, which appear to go into a little more detail. Moynahan's blog post links to some of Gosford's writing, which appears to be a good starting point:

Gosford also moderates Facebook and Yahoo groups about Ethnoornithology.

Most importantly, the reason that this is back in the news in 2018, is because on December 20, 2017, Gosford tweeted a link to the abstract of a paper he (and others) published in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia,” Bonta et al. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4). This is presumably the result of the research that he mentioned in the 2016 interview. I don't have access to the actual paper, but the abstract makes it sound more like a collection of anecdotes than rigorous science. Some excerpts from the abstract:

Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks.

This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.
[...]
Via ethno-ornithological workshops and controlled field experiments with land managers, our collaborative research aims to situate fire-spreading as an important factor in fire management and fire ecology.

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    Just a suggestion - While "Raptor" is one of the correct words for this group of birds, prefer "birds-of-prey" instead. For the layman, the current title looks like there is a lot of small dinosaurs spreading fires on Australia. – T. Sar Jan 10 '18 at 18:00
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    @T.Sar I originally used "birds of prey", but switched to "raptor" in order to shorten the title and not repeat the word "prey". Plus, fire-starting raptors running around Australia sounds both badass, and slightly plausible based on other animals that can be found in Australia. The upvotes on your comment indicate that others agree with you though (or just find your visual funny), so I'll edit the title if others find it confusing. – RToyo Jan 10 '18 at 18:51
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    Never even a moment of doubt that this was about birds, for me. – PoloHoleSet Jan 10 '18 at 21:31
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    While I can confirm that Australia does have a wide range of deadly and dangerous creatures, dinosaurs aren't one of them. Kinda disappointing really... – wattostudios Jan 11 '18 at 1:55
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    @T.Sar but, birds are small dinosaurs. xkcd.com/1211 – John Dvorak Jan 11 '18 at 3:44
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This is a new paper published in a peer reviewed journal. It will take time before it garners the positive or negative citations that are the real peer review. In the mean time, our best option is to rely on non-expert opinion to judge the quality of this evidence.

The research that you have already done about the claim seems like half of an answer already. To summarize the main points:

  • The ABC news article reports that Gosford believes birds spread fires and is looking for evidence. The article never actually says that raptors are spreading fires, just that Gosford believes that they do.
  • Kim Moynahan's blog post criticizes the evidence Gosford is gathering as inconclusive. She concludes "the burden of proof has not been met."
  • The abstract of this paper does not contradict Moynahan's criticisms. The paper appears to be a collection of anecdotes.

This is not my field of study, but I can read a scientific paper and either confirm or deny the criticisms of this paper. It is a collection of anecdotes, and the authors very clearly describe it as such. Their collection of anecdotes is impressive, but still just a bunch of anecdotes. They scrupulously avoid overstating their evidence in the paper. They mostly discuss other people's beliefs and observations. The following is a brief example of this.

Results

Our review of the literature and our interviews show that avian fire-spreading by at least three species of raptors is generally known to rural residents across northern WA, NT, and QLD, particularly to Aboriginal people, who also represent it in religious ceremonies, and to non-Aboriginal people. A small subset of the population has actually witnessed the behavior. Table 1, Figure 2, treatments in the main text, and the Supplementary Materials (Supplementary Reports 1–7) summarize and map fire-spreading reports and cultural beliefs from seven non-Aboriginal informants and 12 Aboriginal groups.

They report that they are going to use better scientific methods to look for more evidence, but the dangers of fires are holding them back.

In our continuing research, we plan to utilize approaches combining controlled experiments (e.g., fire managers lighting fires purposely, under a variety of conditions, to allow trained field technicians with adequate equipment to document, and then describe and quantify, fire-spreading behavior), ethno-ornithological interviews, and provision of protocols and equipment to bushworkers, most notably Aboriginal rangers, to enable them to record the behavior.


Speculation about motives

If a scientist wants to justify hanging out around active fire fronts, he needs a darn good reason to do that. No funding committee will give the scientist a grant unless he can show that he has a good reason to expect the research to pan out. Without that evidence, grad students may be reluctant to risk their lives doing the grunt work. In my opinion, this paper is doing just that; Establishing that there is a good reason to conduct research near an active fire front.


Summary: This seems to be an open question. I don't see anyone actually making the claim that raptors are running around spreading fires. The authors of this paper provide evidence that people believe that, which is a subtly different claim. The authors probably believe it; They say they are planning to invest time and money into proving their hypothesis.

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    I got the impression that there hasn't been past work on this topic either; although I only based that on articles whose primary source seems to be Gosford. Skeptics.SE has some prominent Ausies, so perhaps one of them has done their own literature reviews to gauge how likely it is that Kites will start firebombing their backyard. :) – RToyo Jan 10 '18 at 20:53
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    "I don't see anyone actually making the claim that raptors are running around spreading fires." I believe the claim is that they're flying around spreading fires. *baddum-tsh* – David Richerby Jan 10 '18 at 22:33
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    @DavidRicherby: what about the velociraptors though? – PlasmaHH Jan 11 '18 at 10:10
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    @PlasmaHH Drop bears got 'em all. – David Richerby Jan 11 '18 at 11:40
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    @johnBollinger This runs the risk of getting into an argument over how to interpret someone else's words. I interpreted that to mean that there is a widespread belief in the claim among a certain set of people. The section I excerpted is trying to summarize a lot of information; It is hard to write summaries that are exactly precise and also concise. – BobTheAverage Jan 11 '18 at 17:46

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