Humans may not be the only ones to blame for wildfires. Researchers have preliminary evidence pointing to Australian birds spreading fires in order to force out their prey from protected grassy areas.
The brown falcon and black kite are believed to pick up smoldering pieces of brush and branches, and transport them to new locations. These birds regularly hunt at the edges of fires, but such blazes are not always positioned over food sources. By moving the fires to areas with a heavy concentration of prey, the birds create an easy opportunity to hunt frogs, lizards and snakes.
“It’s not gratuitous,” said Bob Gosford, who has collected the data. “There’s a purpose. There’s an intent to say, okay, there are several hundred of us there, we can all get a meal.”
Gosford is a lawyer who has lived in Australia’s Northern Territory for 30 years. He represents aboriginal people as they negotiate land deals with cattle farmers and other groups. He’s also a bird lover and has presented his findings at multiple conferences. He’s working with Penn State cultural geographer Mark Bonta to publish the work in a peer-reviewed journal. They’d like to co-author the work with the aboriginal community.
Gosford said he has 15 accounts of Australian birds picking up burning pieces of brush and then dropping them in a new spot. His findings come from Australian firefighters, aboriginal people and literature. The evidence is anecdotal and mythical, including one sacred aboriginal ceremony – the Yabadurrwa – in which a person acting as a bird transports a flaming branch.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we can get this on video,” Bonta said. The researchers want to crowdsource their work, and they hope people around the world will monitor birds’ behavior near fires and reach out. Bonta is in touch with a remote community in Honduras, which lives in an environment prone to wildfires. Gosford said he’s following up on a lead in West Africa.
They think this work may turn on its head the accepted wisdom that only lightning and humans ignite wildfires.
“The birds aren’t starting fires from scratch, but it’s the next best thing,” Bonta said. “Fire is supposedly so uniquely human.”
If firmed up, the findings also raise the question of how savannas were formed, the researchers said. Birds, not humans, could have been pivotal in the clearing of those spaces.
Bonta suggested it’s even possible that ancient humans learned about the potential to spread fires from watching birds. Copying the behavior would have spurred human development, as humans learned to control fire and survive in colder climates.
“Forget about the opposable thumbs and the upright stance and all that; fire is the tool that really made us human,” Bonta said.
Gosford’s work is motivated by a failure to recognize aboriginal knowledge.
“There’s an immense amount of aboriginal knowledge of the birds in this country that I firmly believe that for science and land management, if there was greater recognition of it, we’d be a much better place,” he said.