A number of native Australian birds are making the bushfire crisis worse.
The Whistling Kite, the Black Kite and the Brown Falcon are all known to use fire as a way to flush out prey from fields in Australia.
The birds’ behaviour has led to the nicknames ‘arson raptors’ or ‘firehawks’ as they are seen spreading fires by picking up flaming sticks and dropping them into dry fields to scare out smaller animals.
Until 2018 it was thought the birds of prey were simply spreading fire by accident, according to National Geographic.
Local experts, like Anthony Molyneux of the Alice Springs Desert Park was among the skeptics.
‘If [hawks] have missed the prey and perhaps grabbed a stick… they will then drop that stick or rock.
‘If the stick is smoldering or on fire, it will then start another fire,’ he said.
The Whistling Kite, the Black Kite and the Brown Falcon are all known to use fire as a way to flush out prey from savannas in Northern Australia (pictured)
But further research into the raptors’ behaviour found they were intentionally spreading the fires for their own benefit.
Northern Territory lawyer turned bird expert Bob Gosford started a major research project in 2012 based off Aboriginal records of the phenomenon.
The idea was sparked by reports in the past century from the biography- ‘I, the Abioriginal’ about Alawa language group leader, health worker and activist Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts.
A first-hand account of a sighting by Waipuldanya inspired Gosford to co-author a 2017 report into the raptors in the Northern Territory.
‘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, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles. When that area was burnt out, the process was repeated elsewhere. We call these fires Jarulan,’ Waipuldanya said.
It led to the publication of the peer-reviewed journal in late 2017- ‘Intentional Fire-Spreading by ‘Firehawk’ Raptors in Northern Australia’, which was co-authored by Dr Mark Bonta, assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona.
The birds’ behaviour has led to the nicknames ‘arson raptors’ or ‘firehawks’ as they are seen spreading fires by picking up flaming sticks and dropping them into dry fields to scare out smaller animals (pictured)
The publication compiled seven years of research into the behaviour of firehawk raptors in the Northern Territory working alongside local aboriginal land groups conducting controlled burns in grasslands.
Findings determined the birds were in fact spreading fire intentionally, something Gosford confirmed to ABC news.
‘Black kites and brown falcons come to these fronts because it is just literally a killing frenzy.
‘It’s a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire,’ he said.
The Whistling Kite, the Black Kite and the Brown Falcon have been nicknamed ‘firehawk’ (pictured) because of their unusual behaviour in spreading fire to capture small prey
Field work in the Northern Territory in May 2018 is hoping to build on existing research to get a better handle on the way the species’ use smoke and fire.
The research has focused on the Northern Territory’s tropical zone but there have been reports from around Queensland and Western Australia of similar patterns.
Independent Researcher Dr Mark Bonta told the Daily Mail Australia it’s fairly widespread knowledge among Indigenous communities.
‘I haven’t found an indigenous group that I’ve contacted that isn’t aware of it and a lot of these non-indigenous firefighters in some of these communities are familiar with it,’ he said.
But he said the birds are likely to cause more damage outside of traditional fire seasons.
‘It does seem to be the specific case that they spread fire when there isn’t much fire in the landscape, when resources are scarce, when they’re hungry, so that when you have abundant fire on the landscape- they don’t really need to do anything with existing fires- for example even with cooking fires,’ he said.
But researchers are scared the ‘fire-bug’ reputation of the native Australian animal could cause people to start killing them.
‘Firehawks’ or ‘Arson Raptors’
– Three species of birds have been nicknamed ‘firehawks’ and ‘arson raptors’ because of their tendency to spread flames as a way of cornering prey
– The Whistling Kite, the Black Kite and the Brown Falcon have all been seen at fire fronts picking up flaming sticks and dropping them into dry fields to spread fire to dry areas
– The birds then target the small birds, lizards and insects which flee the grasslands
– The behaviour is typically seen out of bushfire season when resources are scarce and fire is limited across the landscape
– The range of the birds’ reported activity spans an area approximately 2,400 by 1,000 kilometers across part of northern Australia
‘As a major factor in spreading fires, I wouldn’t think that birds would be a major contributor- they are a real risk when fires are controlled they do cause damage’, Dr Bonta said.
He’s concerned people may see the birds as a threat and start targeting them unfairly.
‘Overall I think it’s more in the sense there’s going to be more shooting of raptors- which I don’t think is legal- but that people will continue to kind of denigrate them- but certainly with non-aboriginal people who might blame it on the birds.
‘I would be cautious there- I would hate people to blame it on birds,’ he said.
Researchers are hoping to publish the new findings at some point later this year.
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