Black Kite, Milvus migrans

In a few weeks I’ll set off again for the US to present on my latest research project at two big international conferences.

The first will be the Raptor Research Foundation’s meeting at Sacramento in California in early November. You can read more about the meeting here and see the scientific program here (I’m in a session on the last day with eminent Gray Falcon researcher Jonny Schoenjahn).

The second conference I’ll be presenting at is later in the month at the 6th Association of Fire Ecology congress half way across the country in San Antonio, Texas. As the website for that meeting advises, these triennial meeting are:

… the largest, most comprehensive meetings on the research and management of wildland fire that are held anywhere in the world. They provide unparalleled exposure to the complexity, breadth, and depth of the field of wild land fire.

The theme of the 6th Fire Congress is “Advancing Ecology in Fire Management.”

We continue to make a lot of progress in the development and dis­semination of new information. Our challenge is to continue to bridge the ecology of fire with fire management, and facilitate more collaboration among researchers, educators and managers.

So, why am I travelling halfway across the globe to speak at two conferences – one about birds of prey, the other about wildfires – two very different and apparently unrelated subjects?

Brown Falcon, Falco berigora

For the past few years I’ve been working – with my colleague Assistant Professor Dr Mark Bonta from Penn State University – on the possibility that at least one of two Australian birds of prey may be a third force in the propagation of fire in the Australian savanna woodlands. 

You can read some of my early thoughts in the piece from 2011 here. As I noted then:

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.”

Over the years since this – relatively – obscure reference led me on a merry dance through many hours of research online and in the dusty shelves of libraries across this country and others. Finally, with a lot of astute guidance from Dr Bonta, we feel that our research is ready to meet the world.

The longer form of the abstract for these conferences–each presentation will have a different focus to suit the very different audiences–follows:

Ornithogenic fire – birds as propagators of fire in the Australian savanna

Abstract

Birds have long been regarded as key taxa for the study of the impact of fire in the Australian savannah woodlands. Most studies have concentrated on the effect of fire upon bird populations and their habitats.

Fire in Australian savannah woodlands – and the rest of the Australian continent – has two commonly accepted initiation sources, anthropogenic and lightning.

Here we examine the possibility that one or both of two raptors, the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) and the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), are a third factor in the propagation of fire in Australian savannah woodlands.

Australian Aboriginal traditional knowledge and management of the Australian environment is increasingly being accepted as a valid approach to contemporary land management.

Long derided as being unscientific or not based upon a reliable, verifiable or repeatable evidence base, Aboriginal traditional knowledge now forms the basis of land and species management across Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land in many parts of the Australian continent.

In several instances, tradition-based Aboriginal fire management forms a key role in regional and landscape-scaled fire management regimes.

Reports of the role of either or both of the two raptors mentioned above as propogators of fire from a variety of sources will be examined and discussed.

I’m not going to give away the key elements of our research here – you’ll have to wait for that until my return from the US.

Mark Bonta provides some thoughts on our work and poses the tantalising question at the basis of our research.

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?

A few years ago I put out a call for your thoughts–and any observations–about birds and their behaviour in and around fire-fronts.

I’ve received a lot of responses from across Australia–and some from other parts of the world–and have been very pleasantly surprised by the many thoughtful and useful responses.

Keep them coming!!