Act One: I know you are, but what am I?
Often times we humans, especially biologists, like to mull over and discuss the question: “What traits are uniquely human?”. Over decades of debate, multiple answers have been proposed as we collectively shout out into the void, hoping for the universe to confirm that we’re special in some way. Extreme cooperation, morality, culture, humour, tool use, war, and cooking have all been suggested as “uniquely human”. Some of our readers may already be thinking of animal studies that demonstrate that some of these traits are actually more common than most people think. At the very least, they are known to occur in some well-studied species, even those that are not often considered highly complex or intelligent. Indeed, many of these traits are demonstrably not unique to humans and this week’s creature feature showcases one of the most recent debunkings of our misguided perceptions of human exceptionalism.
Act Two: A song of fire and fire… and then also more fire
The term “firehawk” is actually a generic term used by indigenous Australians to refer to three different fire-foraging bird species: whistling kites (Halistur sphenurus), black kites (Milvus migrans), and brown falcons (Falco berigora). That’s right, this creature feature is actually a three-for-one special. These birds of prey are described as “fire-foraging”, in part because they are known to intentionally commit arson in order to catch prey! Native to Australia, these bird species spend much of their time in open grasslands, bushlands, and agricultural areas that are prone to fire. Once a fire has started, these birds will pick up lit sticks and move them up to a kilometer away to spread the fire. These newly-formed satellite fires then cause rodents and reptiles in the area to evacuate, making them easy pickings for these savvy predators.
The behaviors of these birds prove that humans are certainly not the only animals to wield fire or manipulate it to our will, and these killer kites and fiery falcons only get more impressive the more you learn about them. First off, it appears that the behavior is learned and performed only by a few individuals. A detailed account by Dick Eussen, an experienced Australian fireman, described 25 black kites fire-foraging during one of the fires he was called to put out. Interestingly, he noted that only 2 individuals were adept at fire-spreading behavior, while one additional individual attempted the behavior many times but always failed. So, it seems that the behavior takes some learned expertise. Moreover, this account adds to previous observations that this fire-starting behavior can be performed cooperatively by groups of birds that are primarily solitary. Overall, Eussen ended up putting out 7 additional fires that day that had been started by these primitive Prometheuses.
Even more impressive is the deliberate strategizing involved in the behavior. In the same account by Eussen, he notes that he was mainly called to make sure that the fire didn’t leap over the highway and spread to the other side of the road. Although the main conflagration ended up burning out, the many additional fires that called him into action were across the highway. These resourceful birds had specifically facilitated the spread of fire over a physical barrier. Other eyewitness accounts suggest that firehawks will facilitate the spread of fires across rivers and up the sides of valleys. Although unprovable, some indigenous Australians believe that their own use of these fire-based foraging techniques originated from observations of the behavior of these birds. Other animals could therefore not only be our knowledgable contemporaries but also our sage instructors. Lastly, although uncorroborated by modern scientists, there is anecdotal evidence that birds in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia also intentionally start fires. Which brings us to our last section…
Act Three: You say “Indigenous”, I say “ridiculous”
The fact that these fire-foraging birds intentionally start fires is not news to native Australians. Indigenous peoples have long known that this behavior occurs and suggest that it may in fact be quite common. The key component to the behavior here is that the fire starting is intentional. General fire-foraging behavior, which occurs in response to prey that are flushed out due to fire, has been well-documented in birds of prey all over the globe. Even many Western scientists did not doubt that Australian birds may sometimes accidentally start additional fires by mistakenly picking up lit sticks; however, the real point of contention was the idea that they did this with any actual intention or purposeful strategy. This was truly Western thinking at its finest, believing that native groups genuinely saw something they deemed to be significant, but assumed that their interpretation of the event must be inherently romanticised, an experience cloaked in indigenous mysticism waiting to be properly dissected by Western objectivity. As a result, it was only in 2017, when Bonta et al. (2017) published an ethnobiological account of the behavior, in addition to their personal observations of the existence and intentionality of the behavior, that modern academics grew to accept the reality of this behavior. As a result, Bonta et al’s conclusion was to perform more controlled, scientific studies of the behavior in the future, while also paying much due respect and credence to the ecological knowledge of Australia’s indigenous peoples in this matter.
Ultimately, the behavior of these birds is not only incredible but also incredibly consequential. The lack of belief that these birds can intentionally spread fire often lead outside experts and local disbelievers to assume that inept bushland firefighters were simply blaming their failure on some pesky Australian avians with apocryphal arsonist aptitudes. However, these recent findings point to the fact that the behavior of these birds may actually be an important factor to consider in bushfire management strategies. Overall, the trait that is perhaps most predominately shared between us and these birds is the ability to destroy the world around us with such spontaneity and relish.
Adrian Perez is a 2nd year Animal Behavior student. He studies honeybee division of labor. Read about his research here.
Bonta, M., Gosford, R., Eussen, D., Ferguson, N., Loveless, E. and Witwer, M., 2017. Intentional fire-spreading by “Firehawk” raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), pp.700-719.
Coghlan, A., 2018. The birds that steal fire. New Scientist, 237(3160): 4.
Lockwood, D. 1963. I, The Aboriginal. Cassell, London, UK.