This is why Aussie ‘firehawk’ raptors are spreading bushfires

A new study has recently confirmed what Indigenous Australians have known all along: our raptors are using bushfires to corner their prey.
By AG Staff January 11, 2018 Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page

FOR THOUSANDS of years Australia’s indigenous people have spoken about ‘firehawk’ raptors that intentionally spread bushfires in order to corner their prey.

Now, a new study has documented and confirmed the bizarre ritual of these firehawks, finding that at least three raptor species “act as propagators” of wild fire.

The authors hope that the study will encourage a deeper appreciation of ancient indigenous knowledge.

“This has important implications for our understanding of the history of fire initiation in the Australian savanna, and for our appreciation of similar large-scale landscape modification processes there and elsewhere,” the paper reads.

Why do they do it?

According to the study, these firehawks— the back kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon— pick up smoldering grass and sticks from raging bushfires and transport them up to a kilometre away.

“The imputed intent of raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations – for example, the far side of a watercourse, road, or artificial break created by firefighters – to flush out prey via flames or smoke,” the researchers explained.

Co-author and ornithologist Bob Gosford, in an interview with ABC News, said that areas close to bushfires were great hunting grounds for the birds of prey.

“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.

Ancient indigenous knowledge

Between 2011-2017, the authors recorded their observations and conducted several interviews with non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal fire and land managers working in the Northern Territory savanna, and Aboriginal ceremonial participants and senior ceremonial practitioners.

Co-author of the paper Mark Bonta, in an interview with National Geographic, said that Indigenous knowledge was critical to their research.

“We’re not discovering anything…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,” he said.

Accounting for the threat of firehawks in the event of bushfires, the authors insist, should be standard practice.

“Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration.”