Birds Who Start Fires

Smokey Bear would be appalled.

Australian Aborigines have always used fire as a hunting aid and to keep ecosystems healthy.  They realized something long before we did — small fires burn away excess plant material and prevent catastrophes.  But according to Aboriginal lore, there was another native species who saw the value of fire — birds.  Now evidence has been found that supports this lore.  In a recent scientific paper, at least three Australian raptor species are credited with intentionally spreading wildfires by carrying smoldering branches to unburned areas to flush out prey.  It’s not a common behavior — many have seen it only once in decades — and so far it seem unique to Australia.  Raptors hunt around fires in places like West Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Texas, but have never been known to do more than take advantage of a natural opportunity.

This finding has several implications.  First, it’s dangerous for us humans.  A station manager recounted raptors spreading a fire beyond his ability to control.  And birds are suspected of reinvigorating fires that were thought to be no danger.  Second, some are still skeptical.  Although mythology goes so far as to claim birds have stolen sticks from cooking fires, no photographic evidence exists.  Are raptors deliberately grabbing burning branches to start new fires, or is this accidental while trying to snatch prey?  So more research is needed.

If this can be documented to be a deliberate behavior, it’ll be another example of animals being smarter than we give them credit for.

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