Feathered Firestarter

Bushfires. It is a term that most of us who live in the UK are familiar with, but usually something we have little or no experience of. We hear about these fires on the news and we watched open mouthed at the devastation that they are capable of causing. But what do we know about these fires? Well, we know that in those hotter countries they are a frequent occurrence, more so in the summer months due to excessively dry climates. We know they can cause huge damage to property, land and cause devastating loss of life. We know that they can start from natural causes such as lightening, or by deliberate or accidental human activity. But what about animal activity? Could it be possible that animals are causing bushfires? Am I suggesting that there are gangs of animal arsonists running around in hoodies and dark clothing, waiting to set fire to unsuspecting grassland and trees? Not quite, but not far off. In fact, in Australia, there are those individuals from the animal kingdom that are under suspicion of fire starting. Such suspects are highly intelligent, feathered and come in raptor form.



That’s right. Birds of prey are using fire to their advantage, they are using fire to catch prey. The two species who find their mugshots being scrutinised are black kites and brown falcons. According to witnesses, these species have been spotted picking up burning embers and twigs and dropping them in unburnt areas of grassland where they start smoke and of course, fire. They are quite literally smoking their prey out. Flashback to an overgrown Alice stuck in a small house in Alice and Wonderland and the Dodo singing:

‘We’ll smoke the monster out!’

Only this time our dodos are birds of prey and replace the word monster with food. Insects, frogs and small rodents are just some of the species that these birds are targeting. Researchers who have been investigating these accusations now believe that it is perfectly plausible that such behaviour could be another cause of the bushfires that occur in Australia. Those who have witnessed this behaviour include indigenous people, firefighters and bushrangers, all of whom report watching as raptors drop smoking sticks and then wait for their prey to flee from the flames.



Brown falcons and black kites are widespread throughout Australia and there has been some speculation that their selection of burning twigs is accidental, with the birds not deliberately targeting them and releasing them when they become too hot. However, Steve Debus from the University of New England, believes that both species are ‘sufficiently intelligent’ enough to exhibit such a behaviour purposefully. In fact, both species have also been observed dropping scraps of bread from picnic areas into waterways to attract fish, which they then capture.

www.australianbushbirds.info Black Kite

Black Kite



Despite accounts, such a phenomenon has never been caught on film. Currently, evidence is being complied not only from Australia but also from the African Savanna and American plains. Researchers are hoping that the paper will raise awareness of this topic and will encourage people to film these birds in action. So, it would seem we are not the only species aware of the power of fire!


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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