Australian Hawks Caught Starting Fires to Force Prey Into Wide Open Spaces

Fire is a regular event in Australian ecosystems. Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Gosford is an Australian lawyer and bird lover who stumbled on an odd quest one day when he read an account of an indigenous Australian who watched a hawk apparently use a burning twig to spread fire. Gosford was fascinated and wondered whether others had seen the same phenomenon—and he and his co-authors have now tracked down 20 more examples that they share in a recent paper published in the Journal of Ethnobiology.

The paper comes in response to skepticism about the behavior. Gosford and his co-authors found evidence that this behavior was well known to indigenous cultures and to firefighters. They believe the raptors are spreading fires to scare prey out of hiding and make it easier to catch dinner. The birds in question are black kites, whistling kites, and brown falcons, all birds of prey found in Australia (black kites are also found in Europe, Africa, and Asia and may be the single most common raptor).

One of the co-authors on the paper claims that as a firefighter in the 1980s, he extinguished seven separate fires he watched a whistling kite light. The behavior has never been caught on film, but the team wants to change that this year. They've reached out to local fire managers to try encourage them to record bird behavior near flames.

If the behavior holds up, it would be just the third-known cause of wildfires, after lightning strikes and human behavior. While fires that leap out of control can pose serious danger to humans, natural fires are a vital phenomenon in ecosystems where they occur, and stopping small regular burns in an area can lead to an increased risk of larger, more dangerous fires as fuel builds up.

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The team is also looking for reports of similar behavior from birds outside of Australia. Nevertheless, they expect it might be a fairly rare talent only picked up by a handful of individuals, rather than a popular feathery pastime.

Scientists already know about a few North American birds that rely on fire. For example, the rare Kirtland's warblers, a Michigan bird that nests in young trees that can only take root in the wake of a fire, and endangered spotted owls have been shown to thrive where small fires occur.