Nature′s winged arsonists | Global Ideas | DW | 11.01.2018
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Natural Phenomenon

Nature's winged arsonists

Some Australian birds of prey have developed a unique hunting technique that sees them use fire as means of snagging their dinner.

Raubvogel, Black Kite (Milvus migrans) (picture-alliance)

One of the "firehawks," a black kite (Milvus migrans) in flight.

Australia's outback is famous for its massive wildfires. During the summer, the notoriously dry terrain of the continent's interior is often set aflame by lightning or a carelessly discarded cigarette butt.

But Australia's wilderness also has its very own non-human arsonists. Indigenous Australians call them "firehawks." They aren't one species but three different kinds of birds: black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons. What unites them is their unusual behavior. They spread wildfires.

The birds of prey habitually take advantage of wildfires to hunt. As the flames eat their way across the bush, insects, lizards, rodents, small birds and other critters are driven out of hiding and as they try to flee the fire the avian hunters descend.

Australien Outback (Fotolia/Ralph Loesche)

Much of Australia's interior is very dry - ideal conditions for wildfires

Since these blazes offer the birds a veritable feast, the firehawks have developed a unique trait: they actively spread fires themselves. Although the behavior has yet to be captured on video, the birds have regularly been observed picking up smoldering grass or wood near burning fires and carrying them off. They then drop the kindling elsewhere, thereby igniting new fires that allow them to smoke out more prey.

Long known but only to the Indigenous Australians

While a scientific paper  published this week has drawn the attention of a broader audience to this phenomenon, it has long been known to the Indigenous Australians. "We're not discovering anything," co-author Mark Bonta, and a professor at Penn State University in the United States said in an interview. "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."

Bonta's study collected both indigenous as well as non-indigenous observations of the hunting strategy. In a next step, they hope to obtain first-hand footage of the behavior later this year. The plan is to join local firefighters as they conduct controlled burns. They hope that the "firehawks" will be there, too.

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