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Birds of the week – Firehawks of the Top End

Waiting for a roast dinner...two Black Kites and a Torresian Crow. Borroloola, May 2011.

I’ve been fascinated by the relationships between birds and fire since I moved to the Top End of the Northern Territory almost thirty years ago. Right now we are in a hiatus between the early dry season “cool” fires and the “hot” – and vastly more destructive – fire storms of the late dry season and early wet.

A few weeks ago I was down in the Gulf-country town of Borroloola, nestled in some of the most beautiful country of the Top End. One afternoon I saw a slow-burning grass-fire – remember this was early in the dry and there was, particularly following the record past wet-season not long gone – just south of the Rodeo grounds on the edge of town. I went back early in the evening and wandered around the freshly burnt-to-black grounds across to the fire-front.

Away to my left hundreds of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus banksii erupted from the ground before me. At the base of the fire adventurous Torresian Crows Corvus orru, Black Kites Milvus migrans and Whistling Kites Haliastur sphenurus fluttered on fire-fueled updrafts, slipping and falling in and out of the flames.

There are rich pickings around a fire ground, particularly when the densely-grassed annual grasslands burn off. Snakes, Lizards and small ground birds caught at the fire front are burnt to crisp black morsels for the raptors, while the seed eating Cockatoos plunder the corms, insects and seeds that lie snap-cooked on the ashen ground.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus banksii. Borroloola, 2011

Hordes of Kites and Crows flocked to these fires – roosting in trees to wait their turns to plunder the fruits of the fire. The odd Brown Falcon Falco berigora sweeps through looking for a cheap and easy feed.

One aspect of bird behaviour that has long fascinated me turned up in a reference I came across many years ago from a book by the esteemed Australian journalist and author Douglas Lockwood. He shared authorship of perhaps his most famous book – I, the Aboriginal*, with a man named Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts).

An Alawa language group man from the Roper River country in the Northern territory’s south-east, Waipuldanya relates this fine-grained observation of unique bird behaviour:

“I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering 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. When that area was burnt out the process was repeated elsewhere. We call these fires Jarulan

I first came across this report from a reference in an article titled “A Remarkable Case of Tool-Using in a Bird” by the American academic Ashley Montague**, who says:

To the growing list of tool-users among animals other than man should be added the Northern Territory kitehawk [Black Kite, Milvus migrans] or, as he is called among the Australian Aborigines, the firehawk.


Is this, possibly, the first recorded case of the use of fire by a nonhuman animal?”

A Black Kite hovers in the flames.

A good question that I cannot answer. So I tried that last resort of the desperate researcher and posted a few notes on some birding and ethnography web-groups from around the world. I must say that i was somewhat underwhelmed by the response…not that it was an entirely wasted exercise.

On my own bookshelves I came across the modest but very informative booklet “Malakmalak and Matngala Plants and Animals – Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge from the Daly River area, Northern Australia***” published about 10 years ago where at page 78 I found the following intriguing note:

“Black Kite, Chicken Hawk (Kerrk – Malamalak, Num – Matngala). Milvus migrans. Often seen flying around near fires hunting for insects and small lizards escaping the fire. The name refers to its distinctive call “kerrk-kerrk-kerrk“. In the creation period or dreamtime, Kerrk stole fire sticks from the Dingo, so that he could cook the Ckeeky yam. Kerrk is still attracted to fires and occasionally he can be seen carrying burning sticks from an existing fire to start more fires further away.”

My Mississippi Deltan colleague Mark Bonta – highly regarded for his wonderful account of central-American ethnoornithology, Seven Names for the Bellbird: conservation geography in Honduras,**** had the following thoughts about:

…the problems and issues with Western science not believing (in) Traditional Ecological Knowledge — accounts of kites starting fires are found in Africa and in the Americas as well, and I found a reference to a belief, I think it was in New Guinea (would have to check my notes) that humans learned how to use fire from watching kites. For ethno-ornithologists, the rather paternalistic “it isn’t true unless and until Western scientists confirm it” is a real can of worms, needless to say — but in the case of an avian behavior pattern this highly significant, multiple independent confirmations would certainly help. This could be a great collaborative TEK research venture that would, if persuasive data were presented, not fail to have a major effect on the scholarship of those of us who study the pervasive influence of fire on landscape.

I like what the heat from the fire does to the air...and just maybe so do the birds...

So it isn’t just about the birds. What Mark – and more than a few of us around the world – are interested in looking at is the relationships between birds, fire and humans and the rest of the world we live in. Mark later elaborated on these thoughts in his abstract for a conference paper – perhaps not yet delivered.

Large-scale landscape modification and the role of the ‘firebird’: folklore or fact?

Use of fire as a tool is normally considered to be restricted to humans, and hence to have played an extremely important role not only in human societal change but also in the large-scale modification of landscapes across the world. Supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence, authors such as Stephen Pyne have argued for predominantly anthropogenic origins of savannas, pyrophytic forests (Quercus and Pinus, for example), and many other supposedly ‘natural’ ecosystems, which in the absence of human-caused fires revert to quasi- or non-pyrophytic landscapes (climax communities such as mixed forests, for example).

Following this logic, fire caused by lightning strikes (and to a much lesser extent, volcanic ejecta) would have been far less important in landscape modification over large parts of the world. But what if animals other than humans exhibit pyrophilic behavior?

This article examines the elusive evidence for intentional fire-starting by kites of the genera Milvus and Elanus, primarily in Australia but also in Africa and North America. Milvus kites in Australia are frequently seen hunting along the edges of wildfires, attracted to fleeing prey.

This behavior (also noted in other regions) has earned them the local epithet ‘firebird’ [or similar names]. However, local people also commonly take for granted that kites pick up burning embers on purpose in order to spread fire. This purported use of fire as a tool for landscape modification has been commented upon by Western naturalists and even accepted within the secondary literature, but it remains unclear whether such behavior has ever been independently corroborated.

As Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the data are convincing, but given the significance of such behavior to the biological and earth sciences, proof is still needed for acceptance within Western scientific epistemology.

This article concludes by speculating on the importance of this line of investigation. On one hand, “ornithogenic” landscape modification by fire would necessitate a re-evaluation of our knowledge of historic landscape processes. On the other hand, as an Australian (New Guinean?) ‘myth’ states, it opens the possibility of fire manipulation by humans as a behavior learned from kites (comparable to weaving learned from spiders, flight based on birds, etc.)

As you can see there is a lot more that we might be able to learn about these things.

Fire in the north of Australia is just as powerful a force of nature as the 3 metres of rainfall we had here this past wet season, the glorious cool dry season weather we are having right now and all the drama of a rampaging wet season with it’s cyclones and the assault of the human senses that is a tropical thunderstorm.

If you want to learn a bot more about fire in this part of the world I can think of no better place than the excellent North Australian Fire Information site, from where this map comes from.

Fires in the Top End - frequency, duration and seasonality. Source: NAFI

If you have a story about birds and fire I’d love to hear it – take the few seconds to register – once only – and join the conversation with your thoughts.

* Douglas Lockwood. I, the Aboriginal. Readers Book Club in association with the Companion Book Club, London. (1964) (with Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts)

** Ashley Montague (1970) A Remarkable Case of Tool-Using in a Bird. American Anthropologist 72: 610.

*** Biddy Yingguny Lindsay and Waliwararra, K., Miljat, F., Kuwarda, H., Pirak, R., Muyung, A., Pambany, E., Marruridji, J., Marrfurra, P. & Wightman, G. Malakmalak and Matngala Plants and Animals – Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge from the Daly River area, Northern Australia. (2001) NT Botanical Bulletin No. 26. Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT. (ISSN: 0314-1810)

**** Mark Bonta (2003). Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

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  • 1
    desert_mob
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article, Bob. I shall ask my friends here in the centre what they know.
    Gary

  • 2
    Mort
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Great photos. Those birds have always fascinated me too, interesting that locals have observed them moving fire. Wouldn’t surprise me. Here is a link to some recent studies in bird tool use http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110610131906.htm

  • 3
    Tamara
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article, thanks. I’ve heard of kites using the Stuart Highway to their advantage – when bush on one side of the road is burning, they deliberately light the other side so small animals collect on the highway and make easy pickings. I think I saw footage of this, so I’ll see if I can track down.

  • 4
    Bob Gosford
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Tamara – I – and my colleagues working in this area – would love to see footage of Kites carrying firesticks across the highway…I’ll keep and eye out for your response. Thanks!

  • 5
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    This is a note from my fellow-raptorphile Anthony Molyneux who works at the wonderful Alice Springs Desert Park, where for a long time he conducted the free-flying raptor displays.
    With a combination of great location – the east MacDonnell Ranges in the background – and great birds – the raptor flying at the Desert Park is in my humble opinion the best I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a few.

    Here are Anthony’s thoughts:

    “Hi Bob, I have had this question on many occasions of whether the Black
    Kites deliberately light the fires when I was doing the raptor presentations
    at the Alice Springs Desert Park.
    I have never said that they definitely
    don’t do this behaviour however I always gave my thoughts which follow;
    I have watched numerous Black Kites and watched their behaviour when
    swooping down to the ground to pick up food scraps, reptiles etc….. if you
    watch this behaviour they snatch at the prey with their legs thrust forward
    and their legs are then propelled backwards as they continue their flight.

    They fly on briefly to see if there are any other kites that may steal their
    food (they are good pirates of food from other kites) and then look down to
    see what they have caught. If they have missed the prey and perhaps grabbed
    a stick, rock, etc……. they will then drop that stick or rock.

    Now translate this behaviour to a fire and if they missed the reptile and
    grabbed a stick (which may feel like a lizard??) and then realise they have
    missed they will then drop the stick. If the stick is smouldering or on fire
    it will then start another fire.

    From this behaviour they MAY have a learned behaviour or is it just good
    fortune rather than good management??

    I don’t have a definitive answer but above are my observations.

    Anthony Molyneux”

  • 6
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Another guest comment, this from Steven Debus – who for mine is one of the leading authorities on Australian raptor identification and behaviour. Thanks to Shirley Cook for passing this on through the good offices of Australia’s premier birding weblog, Birding-Aus:

    “I know Black Kites are credited with spreading fires by dropping embers ahead of the front, but I have to wonder how intentionally or whether it’s incidental, and I think Anthony’s explanation is quite reasonable.
    But then, the kites have been known to bait fish to the surface with pieces of bread in order to catch them, and they must know that fire flushes prey (because they gather at fires), so maybe they are smart enough to spread fires deliberately.
    They also turn road-killed cane toads on their backs to eat them safely from the belly by avoiding the poison glands, so they figured that one out.
    The fire aspect might be worth observing closely to see whether it’s deliberate.

    Cheers,

    Steve”

  • 7
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    And another guest post in this thread, this time from Shyamal Lakshminaryanan
    of Bangalore in India – where there are plenty of Milvus kites. Shayamal’s thoughts come through the local Bangalore wenlog, BNG Birds:

    “Very interesting pictures although I can imagine skepticism and questions on intent versus accident even if someone found a kite carrying a burning twig. Fire tends to attract a whole range of birds in India including drongos, kites and rollers. While trying to improve the Wikipedia article
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Kite I did make a note of this observation from Australia which was cited in a another reference where the primary source was
    Chisholm AH (1971). “The use by birds of tools and playthings”. Vict. Nat. 88: 180–188.
    In case you can get hold of that reference, I would be interested in a copy.

    I am sure you have heard about the chough (“the” in England but Red-billed Chough for those who have other relatives to deal with) and its fire associations.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-billed_Chough

    best regards
    Shyamal
    Shyamal Lakshminaryanan
    Bangalore, India”

  • 8
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Another guest post – this time a great observational note published in the Australian birding magazine “Wingspan” and written by Dick Eussen, who edits and writes for various travel, fishing, 4WD and camping magazines. This note was passed on by Sheryl Keates of Darwin:

    “Fire Management –(Wingspan Dec 2003, p. 35)

    In the late 1960s Aborigines in the Wilton River area of Arnhem Land told me that kites carry lighted sticks across narrow creeks and tracks to start fires on the other side. Of course, I was skeptical.

    But in the 1980s I worked at the Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu as a team leader in the fire department. Ranger had a no burn policy on the lease to lessen erosion, a real problem for heavily burned areas at the onset of the Wet. Fires lit by the national parks people in Kakadu were fought on the lease borders. I was keeping an eye on a fire one afternoon to prevent it crossing the road into the lease area.

    When the fire was about 50m from the track, I could see a horde of insects, mostly spiders and grasshoppers, running and flying in front of it. I also noted lizards, quail, bandicoots, a rat and a couple of mice. As always the kites were wreaking havoc on the unfortunate creatures and a quail was plucked out of the air by a swooping kite. Many people believe that kites don’t catch prey themselves, but I have also seen them gang up on the clay pans and mullock dumps of Mount Isa to chase and catch zebra finches.

    Anyway, we watered the edge of the track with the main unit, and the fire was burning itself out, when I noticed a kite fly across the track with what appeared to be a smoking stick in one of its feet. It dropped the object on the other side of the track and smoke began to curl from the dry grass, starting a spot fire that I immediately put out with the small fire tender. I put out seven fires in my section – all caused by the kites as there was no wind to blow embers that far.

    At least two dozen kites were swooping down at the edge of the dying fire but only two appeared to be adept at transporting smoking sticks, up to 20 cm long, and releasing them into the grass on the other side of the track. One kite repeatedly swooped at a stick, but only lifted it a metre or less before dropping it.

    The fire crossed the track about 600 m away, where the main fire team was working. The team could not explain why it had done so, but the kites were working the full length of the fire and could well have been responsible. Though few of the guys believed my story when I told them about the fire hawks, at least two later reported similar incidents.

    I saw the behaviour again a few years later. One of a large flock of kites had two goes at carrying and dropping a stick ahead of a fire, but only succeeded once, discarding the first stick when it apparently became too hot. The kites were Whistling Kites. Though Black Kites often follow flocks of Whistling Kites in Kakadu, I have not seen them spread fire.”

  • 9
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Yet another comment passed on through my good friends on the inter-webs…again from Sheryl Keates of Darwin. This note comes from Denise Angelo who was a senior linguist for Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation in the Katherine Region, recording stories, identifying flora and fauna, and assisting the Northern Territory Conservation Commission.

    “I have often witnessed ‘fire hawks’ – Black Kites – in the Katherine Region of the Northern Territory picking up smoldering sticks and dropping them ahead of fire front.

    The first time I saw this behaviour I was very surprised, although I shouldn’t have been because various traditional people that I worked with as a linguist had mentioned a kind of hawk that ‘starts fires’. I had actually assumed there was a problem with my comprehension and decided that they may have been referring to some mythical event that perhaps explained the bird’s dark (burnt!) colouration.

    The bushfire brigade in Katherine also knew of the kites’ pyromania. Once, when a fairly impressive scrub fire was racing along the riverbank towards my place, the fire fighters came ahead of it to warn us. I asked them how far it might spread and they replied that it should stay on a fairly narrow front, depending on the activities of the blasted fire hawks.

    It has always puzzled me that this behaviour is not more widely written about. As far as the use of ‘tools’ goes, these birds are pretty hard to beat.”

  • 10
    Bob Gosford
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Another note – this time from Con Boekel, who has written a number of important articles about the early (well, in the 1970s and 1980s) days of Northern Territory ornithology.

    As you can see Con spent a lot of time working closely with Aboriginal people across the Top End of the NT. I’ll have a post soon that echoes his comments about the hawk-hunting hides n the VRD district of the Top End.

    I love his comment “If there was a fire and I had bird watching time, off I would go” – I know the feeling!:

    “Your post rekindled many happy memories of birds and fire in the Top End – mainly in north-eastern and south-eastern Arnhemland.
    If there was a fire and I had bird watching time, off I would go.

    I was a volunteer firey at Nhulunbuy. Smoke from the annual fires that crossed the bitumen was deemed by the local fire chief, a fanatic, to be a road hazard, so we would don knapsacks and put the fires out.

    Naturally the locals relit the fires behind us as we went. We soon learned to tip the water out of our knapsacks, short a squirt or two, when the boss was not looking. When he came back, we would squirt the last of the water out of the knapsacks and that would be that. But that was another story.

    The real beauty of ‘fighting’ these fires were the insects that swirled up in the flames and the snakes and lizards that moved in front of the fire. Amongst the heat, the swirling sparks, the sooty ashes, and the crackling flames, we would be surrounded by many species of birds feeding in front of, above, and behind the fire lines.

    In the Victoria River District there are many ‘hawk traps’ along the cliff lines. Although they are called traps, they might best be described as hawk hunting hides.

    These are circular in shape – perhaps 1.5m in diameter and perhaps about three quarters or a metre high.

    Daley Bulgara who grew up in the district in the early part of last century told me how these traps worked. A few sticks and spinifex would be placed to cover the trap, allowing a hole in the middle. A stick would be poked through the hole.

    At the end of the stick would be a piece of string and tied to the end of the string a small dead bird. The hunter would sit in the hide and twirl the little bird to entice the hawks to attack it. He would then reach through the hole, grab the hawk, pull it into the hide and kill it by giving it a bite to the back of the neck.

    To help attract hawks, fellow hunters would light fires. Daley told me he had been in such a hide with his father and that the hide would be full of dead hawks by the time the hunt was over.”

  • 11
    skink
    Posted December 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    hi there.
    I came across this article while researching a creation story from the Njamal people who live in and around the town of Marble Bar in Western Australia.
    There are ridges of black hills that run across the landscape roughly south to north. They are known locally as ‘treacle tops’, and look as if they have been burnt, but are simply outcrops of black rock.
    The Njamal have a story that in the creation time their people were at war with another group over territory. A kite saw their fighting and offered to lead the Njamal to new country of their own. He told them he would fly ahead with a burning stick, lighting the tops of the hills as he went. The people should follow the line of blackened hills to reach their country.
    So far I have only heard this story orally, second-hand, and was searching for other sources.

  • 12
    Jason Lewis
    Posted September 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m a fire fighter on the Tiwi Islands during the dry and while I’ve never actually seen this first hand I’ve heard about and seen the results from fire hawks. It seems to be common knowledge up here that the hawks do intentionally pick up burning sticks and carry them across to an unburnt area to continue the fire.

    A huge part of our job up here is asset protection (lots of plantation up here to protect). We’ve had fires start well within a plantation from an unknown cause. Wind wasn’t blowing hard enough to transport anything burning that far into the plantation. That leaves us to believe that yes the hawks are picking up and starting fires further along. A right pain in the backside it is!

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