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The Northern Myth

Nov 8, 2015

Ornithogenic Fire: Raptors as Propagators of Fire in the Australian Savanna

There is compelling evidence that at least two raptor species – the Brown Falcon and the Black Kite – act as propagators of fire within the Australian savanna woodlands and perhaps in other similar biomes elsewhere

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This is a presentation made earlier today at the Raptor Research Foundation meeting at Sacramento, CA.

Thanks to my co-author Mark Bonta of Penn State University for his invaluable assistance with this presentation.

Please note that this presentation is but a summary of our work which will emerge as a full-blown paper in the near future.

Introduction

Birds are key taxa in the study of the impact of fire on Australian savanna woodlands – but most studies examine the impact upon birds, not the impact of birds in relation to fire;

Two commonly accepted sources of fire in Australia – anthropogenic and lightning. But we want to ask if there is a third cause?

Here we look at the evidence that two raptors – the endemic Brown Falcon Falco berigora and the globally-abundant Black Kite Milvus migrans – may be propagators of fire in the Australian savanna and perhaps elsewhere; and

Applying ethno-biological research methods and materials – anthropological, linguistic and first-person accounts – reveals the as-yet unrealized role of these birds and fire in both traditional knowledge and ceremonies and land management. 

Methodology

Because biological information on the two species studied here is (relatively) well-known, we have focused on the identification of relevant ethnobiological research methods and materials;

We have conducted formal semi-structured interviews with a small number of non-Aboriginal (n=6) and Aboriginal (n=8) fire and land managers working in the Northern Territory savanna;

We have conducted formal semi-structured interviews with a small number of Aboriginal ceremonial participants and senior ceremonial practitioners (n=10);

We have conducted extensive literature research (both specialist academic and ‘grey’ literature) on a variety of topics including general and specific anthropological research, linguistic texts, particularly dictionary and grammar texts, and fire-related literature;

We have also issued calls for comment and submission of observations through social media networks that have provided a number of useful contacts and further research cues;

We are looking at publishing our preliminary findings in the near future and the preparation of a further field-based research program for the 2016 northern fire season, with a concentration on video contributions by local fire managers and interviews with practitioners and observations from other savanna biomes.

The two species under consideration here are:

(1) Black Kite Milvus migrans Boddaert, 1783 (above). A medium-sized, latest global population estimates run up to 6 million individuals. They are opportunistic hunters more likely to scavenge. 

Distributed through temperate and tropical parts of Eurasia, Africa, & parts of Australasia and Oceania. Attracted to smoke and fires, where they seek escaping prey, related to Australian Aboriginal beliefs that kites spread fires by picking up burning twigs and dropping them on dry grass.

(2) Brown Falcon Falco berigoraVigors and Horsfield, 1827. A mid-sized long-legged, buteolike falcon. Adults are extremely variable: from tan and buff to chocolate brown with variable white underparts (males tend to have more white), to near black all over.

A versatile and opportunist hunter: takes prey from perch, hover, in direct flight, or running over the ground.

Pairs occasionally hunt cooperatively. Feeds on fresh carrion but takes mostly live prey: mammals, birds, reptiles (especially snakes), amphibians, and large insects.

Fire and birds in the Australian savanna

Australia is dominated by fire-adapted vegetation. European settlers have, since the time of invasion of the continent in 1788, struggled to comprehend the ecology of fire in Australia. Unlike southern Australia’s forests, northern Australia’s savannas are the most pyrophitic of the world’s biomes.

Fires burn about 30-50% of northern Australia each year. Many areas burn every year. The fires are so common for so much of the year that the creation of new habitat occurs almost continuously. The most ephemeral of these habitats is the fire itself.

Fire provides the opportunity for pyrophilic behaviour by some birds. Brown Falcons, Falco berigora, perch at the fire-front waiting for grasshoppers, frogs, snakes, lizards and small mammals.

Whistling Kites (Haliastur sphenurous), and particularly Black Kites (Milvus migrans), spectacularly hawk around the curtain of flame, preying on grasshopper, cockroaches and other small fleeing animals. 

Apart from these opportunistic specialists, many other bird species also benefit from fire, foraging directly at the fire-front or, particularly in the northern savannas, relying on the opportunities provided by post-fire habitat succession for prey availability. The changed appearance and odour of habitat, plus new distribution of resources and dangers, greatly increase the vulnerability of prey species.

Other predatory species exploit the two to three days of the ‘hot ash’ phase and the subsequent two weeks of the ‘cold black’ phase after the smouldering has stopped but before vegetative sprouting – the ‘green pick’ phase – has begun.

But this fire-related activity is only a part of the story. The ecology of Australia’s tropical savannas is shaped by the near-pervasive influence of fire.

Constituting ~20% of Australia’s land area, tropical savannas contribute >75% of the area burnt in Australia each year. Across most of Australia’s tropical savannas, components of biodiversity are declining, including many species of birds.

Local Aboriginal people believe that Black Kites set fires by carrying burning sticks to new locations and drop them into dry grass on unburnt grounds. (From: Bowman & Murphy (2011); Woinarski (nd); Braithwaite & Estbergs (1987-88)). 

 Image: Rain in average millimetres/annum. Credit: Mila Bristow/Charles Darwin University.

Image: Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research.

“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.”

Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts in I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood & Phillip Roberts. Readers Book Club, London. (1964)

Reading that quote from Waipuldanya started me on a research project that has run for more than a few years so far and most likely will run for a few more. The material that I’ve found falls into three broad categories:

  1. Direct evidence – correspondence and interviews – from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land-managers and fire “fighters” of observations of raptors carrying burning sticks from burned ground to unburnt ground;
  2. Direct evidence using interviews – from Aboriginal ceremonial leaders and participants of observations of raptors carrying burning sticks from burnt ground to unburnt ground and of the relationships between those observations and contemporary ceremonial practice; and
  3. Accounts from the literature including anthropological accounts of ceremonies, reports of traditional Aboriginal myths and legends, fire and ecological management, ornithological and linguistic journals and popular literature.

Turning to this material by category (briefly):

  1. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land-managers and fire-fighters are close observers of fire behaviour and all those things associated with the management of wildfires. Aboriginal observers spoken to generally take fire-promoting behaviour by these raptors as a given, whether they have seen it or not. Non-Aboriginal observers express initial surprise at seeing this bird behaviour and sometimes struggled to incorporate it into their broad fire-related knowledge;
  2. Aboriginal informants – whether professionally engaged as fire and/or land managers – who participate in ceremonies where this conduct is expressed as a ‘scene’ during the course of at least two of them conducted across Arnhem land, accept this conduct as a mythological, religious and contemporary fact. These informants have fine-grained ecological and cultural knowledge and most informants are fluent in several local languages, with English often being at least a second or third language.
  3. The anthropological material found during my research – some recorded as long as 110 years ago – indicated that practices conducted in one ceremony, the Yabuduruwa, was consistent with that recorded in detail in 1965 and with contemporary practice. The “scene”, known variously as the “Grasshopper” or “Burnt Grass” scene is also found in a more widespread funerary ceremony known as “Lorrkon”. Linguistic material reveals useful corroborative data across a wide area. Phonetically similar or cognative names for “garrkan”, variously identified as either Brown Falcon or “chickenhawk” is often accompanied by a description that closely links the bird with fire, either as “having fire”, “carrying fire” or similar. There is an extensive body of recorded material – some over 100 years old – of Aboriginal myths and legends relating to birds and fire from across Australia. Many of these relate to the role that birds play in the spread of fire for use by humans. One common theme is that a small hawk – variously a “chickenhawk”, “eaglehawk” or similar – rescues fire from an agent that wants to dispose of it/refuses to share/etc. and distributes fire to humans for the common good.

Conclusions and future research

There is compelling evidence that at least two raptor species – the Brown Falcon and the Black Kite – act as propagators of fire within the Australian savanna woodlands and perhaps in other similar biomes elsewhere in the world.

This has important implications for our understanding of the history of fire initiation in the Australian savanna, and for our appreciation of similar large-scale landscape modification processes there and elsewhere.

It is also possible that humanity’s acquisition and manipulation of fire may be a result of the observation of intentional avian pyrophilic behaviour rather than solely from some relationship with lightning-caused fire.

There is some limited evidence of similar avian pyrophilic behaviour from elsewhere – the Grasshopper Buzzard, Butastur rufipennis in central Africa and the Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway in the southern USA – and this also calls for further study.

Further research is required in the Australian savanna woodlands and we are planning a qualitative and quantitative research program for the 2016 northern fire season.

Any suggestions for funding or support would be welcomed!

If you are interested in finding out more about ethnoornithology, this volume provides an excellent overview of the sub-discipline.

You can join the Ethnoornithology FB page and the Ethnoornithology Research & Study Group has more information and connections.  

Please send in your observation or thoughts here or you can send them direct to me by email at birdknowledge@gmail.com

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