ARE BIRDS ABLE TO USE FIRE?
By Shai Kuganesan
It is highly suspected that birds of prey in the Australian Bush are deliberately starting fires to capture the fleeing animals. There are no animals other than humans that are recorded to have deliberately started a fire.
However surprising it may sound to have birds as the 'third force' capable of creating fire along with humans and lightening, this behaviour has been observed for nearly 40,000 years by the Aboriginal people. The flying firestarters that are now being called the 'Firehawk Raptors' are spread across at least three known species - the Black Kite, Whistling Kite and Brown Falcon. The indigenous people have always observed these birds' fire starting capabilities, that's not true for elsewhere.
Firehawk Raptors are said to congregate in hundreds along burning fire fronts and fly in to pick up smouldering sticks. They then travel up to a kilometre away to set flame to a region that has not been scorched yet. The raptors spread fire to unburned areas to flush out their prey through the flames or smoke. This means that prey are driven towards the Firehawk Raptors by a wall of flames, meaning they can engage in a 'feeding frenzy' upon the escaping prey.
The inspiration for this study came from a passage in the autobiography of an Indigenous doctor and activist, Philip Waipuldanya Roberts in 1964. "I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away," he said, "Then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles."
The question then becomes; do these birds actually know what they're doing? Or is it all a fluke? "If [hawks] have missed the prey and perhaps grabbed a stick...they will then drop that stick or rock," Anthony Molyneux of the Alice Springs Desert Park wrote. "If the stick is smouldering or on fire, it will then start another fire." Many local experts are sceptical of whether these hawks cause the fires intentionally.
On the contrary, researchers believe birds do know what they're doing, citing the numerous accounts from multiple witnesses as evidence for their behaviour not being a fluke. Some even say that it seems coordinated, almost like a pack hunt. Many researchers now agree that these raptors start these fires with a purpose, an intent, to get the several hundreds of other birds fed.
The birds may not be starting the fire from scratch, but it's the next best thing. Fire has been supposedly unique to humans all this time, but now birds will share that glory with us. This also suggests that birds may have actually beaten us to the use of fire as well.