Humans have long shaped the landscape by setting fires, but animals? In northern Australia, where natural fires are a significant part of the landscape, black kites and brown falcons have learned to pick up burning sticks and drop them on unburned vegetation to force mice, frogs, insects, and other small critters into the open, where they can be caught, says Bob Gosford, an Australian lawyer and bird enthusiast.
“There is compelling evidence that at least two raptor species – the brown falcon and the black kite – act as propagators of fire within the Australian savanna woodlands and perhaps in other similar biomes elsewhere in the world,” writes Gosford. “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.”
Gosford’s legal work brought him into close contact with Aboriginal people and he became fascinated by their relationship with birds. To them, that birds hunt with fire is a given.
Along with Penn State researcher Marka Monta, Gosford spoke with numerous Native Australians, firefighters, and 14 bush rangers, all of whom confirmed seeing the birds of prey using burning twigs and branches to light fire. Some carried their blaze long distances.
“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,” Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts said in the book I, the Aboriginal. “When that area was burnt out the process was repeated elsewhere.”
Photo by Bob Gosford