randombio.com | science commentary
Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Birds Discover Fire

A new article reports that birds deliberately set fires to trap prey


W hile the humans were busy tweeting this week about some sleazebag book, birds have been quietly catching up on technology. They already have tools; now they've discovered how to use fire. That's according to six ethnobiologists[1] who report that Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) deliberately spread fire in tropical Australian savannas in order to trap prey.

Whistling Kite
Whistling Kite Source

The main focus on the article, which was reported at the computer news site The Register, was on how the Australian Aborigines possess sophisticated “indigenous ecological knowledge.” They write: “Full and respectful incorporation of Aboriginal IEK in fire management remains elusive.” They say that Aborigines used fire to produce grasslands to attract kangaroos and emu, and they're working hard to restore the Aboriginal land-use policy.

Well, have fun with that. Anyway, birds are setting fires in Australia, just as they have done in East Africa, Papua New Guinea, Florida and Texas USA, and Brazil by picking burning sticks in their talons. They transport them up to a kilometer away and then drop them in the grass, thereby flushing out prey by flames or smoke. The authors say that outsiders previously regarded such fire-spreading behavior to be accidental. So the authors went out and interviewed some people, deliberately excluding Aborigines, their reasoning being that “Traditional Owners,” as they call them, view it as sacred knowledge.

The authors also report first-hand observation of a Black Kite grabbing a smoking stick and dropping it onto the road. Dick Eussen (a firefighter and co-author) says he was forced to put out seven grass fires, all caused by kites. Other kites were less adept at this and made repeated failed attempts to pick up smoking sticks.

Farmers, it seems, are well aware of this behavior and deal with the dangers this poses to their livestock by shooting the birds.

Dropping things on prey animals and items perceived as threats is natural behavior for birds. I heard of one person reporting that after he shot at a crow, the crow turned around and plastered him with bird droppings. I observed myself that owl effigies are also frequent targets of birds. So it would make sense that they would use other materials in the same way.

All of which suggests that birds could have been using fire for millions of years, yet we humans never noticed. What else are they doing that we don't know about? What if they discover nuclear fission, for instance? Maybe it's time to test them with our Geiger counters just in case. Arguably we're too late: according to an article in Functional Ecology, some birds have already picked up radioactive material from Chernobyl—and are thriving on it.


Bonta M, Gosford R, Eussen D, Ferguson N, Loveless E, and Witwer M (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by Firehawk Raptors in Northern Australia. J Ethnobiology, 37(4):700–718. https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700 Source


jan 09 2018, 6:53 am; last edited jan 10 2018, 6:55 am

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