Remarkable new evidence has come to light to suggest that some birds of prey deliberately set fire to scrubland to flush out prey. Ornithologist Bob Gosford claims that arsonist birds are picking up burning twigs from existing fires and dropping them elsewhere to start new blazes. This sends small animals running to escape and the birds then easily pick off the fleeing creatures.
In effect, the birds are using fire as tool. It’s a remarkable claim, reported in New Scientist, but Gosford says he can back it up with eyewitnesses accounts he has collected in Australia.
Bob Gosford, who works at the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia, says he has spoken to many Aboriginal rangers in the north Australian tropical savannah, who have witnessed this behavior. The three species of birds of prey observed picking up and dropping burning sticks are black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora).
An Australian Whistling Kite , one of the birds of prey observed with deliberately starting a wildfire. Photo Credit: Steve Happ
Gosford has also collected startling evidence from Dick Eussen, a photojournalist and former firefighter. Eussen says he was fighting a wildfire near Kakadu, Northern Territory, in the 1980s, when he saw a whistling kite 20 metres away carrying a smoking stick, which it dropped, starting a new fire. He says he watched the arsonist kites deliberately start seven new fires. Euston also says in September 2012, he saw a black kite start a fire by dropping a flaming stick in Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.
Eussen’s observations are backed up by Nathan Ferguson, a firefighter at the Tennant Creek fire station, Northern Territory. Ferguson claims he saw kites set fire to scrubland in September 2016 and has also witnessed the birds unsuucesfuly attempt to start fires on several other occasions.
“We believe the observations by Ferguson and Eussen provide cogent evidence this behaviour occurs, that it is intentional, and that it may happen more frequently than suspected,” says Gosford.
Gosford now plans to conduct further investigations, and is preparing to work with Aboriginal ranger groups who manage fires, to set up controlled burned and attempt to capture the birds of preys’ strange behavior.
Source: Journal of Ethnobiology, DOI: 10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700