Birds Can Spread Wildfires, Research Suggests

Birds, like this black kite near a fire in Northern Australia, may be able to spread wildfires, new research suggests. Bob Gosford

It's long been thought that only humans use fire as a tool, and that wildfires get started either because of lightning or people. But new research suggests that at least two varieties of birds may be able to intentionally spread fire to benefit themselves.

Mark Bonta, a cultural geographer at Penn State University, says that it's "standard knowledge" amongst Aborigines and firefighters in Northern Australia that birds can transport the embers from existing wildfires and spread them to new areas. The flames and smoke drive out prey like small marsupials, insects and lizards from their hiding places, so the birds can feed upon them, the theory goes.

Bonta collaborates with Bob Gosford, a lawyer and bird lover who lives in Northern Australia and represents aboriginal people in the region. Gosford has collected more than a dozen observations and stories of people saying they've witnessed two types of birds—black kites and the brown falcons—transporting embers or burning material from one location to another to start fires and flush out prey.

This type of research is known as ethnoornithology, or the study of the relationship between birds and people. Gosford uses a regimented, well-accepted method for collecting stories that involves interviewing the same people multiple times to tease out narratives that may be false. The duo have submitted their work to a scientific journal, and Gosford has presented his research at a number of scientific conferences. That said, Bonta acknowledges that the work won't be accepted by biologists until there is hard proof, such as video evidence, which he and a group of collaborators are currently trying to obtain.

"It's second-hand and we don't intend to say that this is happening without any doubt," Bonta says. "But the stories [and evidence] we have, we find very compelling."

If the birds-transporting-fire theory is proven to be true, it "would force us to rewrite what we know" about birds, fire and the evolution of the landscape, Bonta says. For example, it would change how geographers think about the development of grasslands, many of which are thought to have been created by human started fires. (Trees can overshadow grasslands unless thinned regularly by fires, and grasslands are favorable for hunting large animals like bison.)

It could also have implications for our understanding of the evolution of human fire use—one of the major influences in making humans what they are today. Bonta theorizes that humans may have learned from birds how to spread fire, after seeing them do it. But that, of course, is probably untestable, he says.