Bushfires are common in Australia’s tropical savannas. Most are started when lightning or humans ignite bone-dry grasslands, scorching thousands of square miles each year. It’s part of the natural order. But the Aboriginal peoples who are indigenous to the country’s Northern Territory will tell you that there's another way these fires spread. They say that “firehawks” -- specifically the black kite, the whistling kite, and the brown falcon -- routinely pick up burning sticks and drop them in new locations, then wait for prey to flee right towards the hungry, waiting birds.
Ready, aim, fire:
- Anecdotes about the so-called "firehawks" were published in the Journal of Ethnobiology in 2018, but definitive proof that birds of prey purposely spread bushfires has yet to be established. Scientifically verified or not, National Geographic researcher Mark Bonta says that Aboriginal Australians have known about the phenomenon "for probably 40,000 years or more.”
- In the 1964 book I, the Aboriginal, Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts wrote: “I have seen a hawk pick up a smoldering 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.”
- Australian ornithologist Bob Gosford says that the burning sticks are “not much bigger than your finger,” and that the raptors’ attempt at arson “is not always successful, but sometimes it results in ignition.”