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:
- Birds of the Week: Firehawks at the top end (Gosford 6-28-2011)
- Birds, Fire and Culture: A New Research Project (Gosford 4-13-2013)
- Do these raptors spread fire in the Australian Savanna ( Gosford 10-13-2015)
- Orthinogenic fire raptors as propagators of fire in the Australian Savanna (Gosford 11-08-2015)
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.