'Firehawks' Flush Out Prey With Flames

The black kite is one of three species that has been observed picking up smoldering embers from one fire to start another elsewhere. Alexius Sutandio/Shutterstock

Someone call Billy Joel. We may know who started the fire.

Three birds of prey in Australia's Northern Territory have been identified by indigenous people there as fire starters. A study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology compiled their anecdotal experiences over centuries and recent field experiments to shed light on the impact these birds have on the spread of wildfires.

"We're not discovering anything," co-author Mark Bonta, a geographer at Penn State University, told National Geographic. "Most of the data that we've worked with is collaborative with aboriginal peoples ... They've known this for probably 40,000 years or more."

Feeding time for 'firehawks'

Black kites and whistling kites circle a brush fire in Mount Etna Caves National Park, Central Queensland.
Black kites and whistling kites circle a brush fire in Mount Etna Caves National Park, Central Queensland, Australia. Mark Marathon/Wikimedia Commons

These three birds — the black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and the brown falcon (Falco berigora) — are familiar sights near brush and wildfires in Australia, so much so that they've become known as "firehawks."

The birds are attracted by the fires because they force prey, like small rodents and reptiles, to scurry away from the blazes and out into the open. The birds simply soar over the fires and wait for the right moment, or perch on branches at the edges of fires and wait to see what delicious morsel scampers into their talons.

"Black kites and brown falcons come to these fronts because it is just literally a killing frenzy," co-author and ornithologist Bob Gosford said in a 2016 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "It's a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire."

At some point, the birds evidently learned that if they started their own fires, there'd be more easy meals. It was only a matter of picking up a branch that was on fire, carrying it to a different dry spot, dropping it and waiting.

Hardly a new practice

A brown falcon perches on a fence in Northern Territory, Australia
This brown falcon is probably thinking, 'This seems like a good place for a fire.'. Chris Watson/Shutterstock

"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," wrote Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts in "I, the Aboriginal," an autobiography of Roberts compiled by Australian journalist Douglas Lockwood and published in 1962.

"When that area was burnt out, the process was repeated elsewhere."

Over the course of the study, the authors collected information from individuals in 12 aboriginal tribes with firsthand accounts of these birds starting or restarting fires using this method.

Bonta emphasized the importance of aboriginal information in regards to the birds' behaviors, explaining to Live Science that they've conducted thousands of controlled burns for millennia and thus have unique insights into the ecosystem,

"Our work is a collaborative effort to help valorize indigenous knowledge of birds, particularly as known to the older generations — this is not simply 'folklore' but rather intricate ecosystem knowledge that is typically unparalleled even by most outsider experts," he said.

Usable photographic and videographic evidence, however, is hard to come by, given the conditions in which it would need to be collected — there's a fire on, after all — but Gosford and Bonta are leading a team that will observe controlled burns and hopefully collect some visual data on how the birds behave.

They hope that such evidence will help their case in making sure the raptors are considered as sources for Australia's wildfires, something which has been dismissed in the past.

According to National Geographic, 18 percent of Australia's 730,000 square miles of savanna were affected by fires every year between 1997 to 2011, so any insight into how to better manage the spread of fires is important.