Think humans are the only animals capable of harnessing the power of fire? Think again, says one ongoing study about the curious relationship between fire and two species of raptors. Penn State geographer Mark Bonta and Bob Gosford, an Australian lawyer who represents the interests of aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory, say they have been working with researchers on a study about whether birds have an impact on forest fires. Specifically, they believe that the brown falcon and black kite have a particular habit of using smoking twigs to start fires on their own, which allow the birds to flush prey out of dense cover. The side effect of this strange hunting ritual is that the fire can grow and eventually consume many acres of forest.
“There is compelling evidence that at least two raptor species—the Brown Falcon and the Black Kite—act as propagators of fire within the Australian savanna woodlands and perhaps in other similar biomes elsewhere in the world,” Gosford wrote on his blog. “This has important implications for our understanding of the history of fire initiation in the Australian savanna, and for our appreciation of similar large-scale landscape modification processes there and elsewhere.”
Gosford and Bonta go so far as to speculate that early humans may have picked up on the useful properties of fire by watching birds carry smoldering sticks to place in a forest. However, researchers have little photographic evidence of this behavior in birds, and much of their evidence comes directly from the eyewitness accounts of forest rangers and local aboriginal people.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we can get this on video,” Bonta told The Washington Post. ““The birds aren’t starting fires from scratch, but it’s the next best thing.”
The lack of physical evidence caused some skepticism among those following the study. Supporters however, say it is not a big leap to believe that birds use fire for hunting. They say raptors in areas prone to wildfire will have noticed that fire will send many of their prey animals scurrying out of the brush, leading to prime feeding opportunities for the birds. After repeated instances of this, birds may get it in their heads to replicate the scenario. The more intelligent bird species have also been known to use tools or set traps. Toughened legs and claws also give the birds some measure of fire protection.
“I think black kites and brown falcons are sufficiently intelligent to intentionally spread fires by dropping burning embers, because black kites have been seen to drop bread scraps from picnic areas into nearby waterholes to bait fish within striking range,” Steve Debus, an expert in predatory birds at the University of New England, told the Daily Mail.
Researchers say that they are following up leads in other areas where birds are suspected to have caused forest fires, such as Honduras and West Africa.
Have you ever seen any behavior like this? Gosford and Bonta are encouraging bird watchers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts to send them any photos of this activity.