This is the text of my presentation to the Cultural Burning and Traditional Custodian Fire Projects session at Bushfire 2016, Connecting Science, People and Practice, a conference organised by the South-East Queensland Fire & Biodiversity Consortium at the University of Queensland last week.

The session was chaired by Oliver Costello. Our research team consists of Bob Gosford, Mark Bonta of Penn State University and Erana Jae Loveless from the University of Arizona at Tucson. We were assisted in the field by Max Witwer of Penn State University.

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 & Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts.

Brown Falcon Falco berigora & Black Kite Milvus migrans – interaction with fire in Australian savanna woodlands

Hypothesis: Deliberate fire-spreading behavior of Falco berigora and Milvus migrans has significant effects on savanna landscapes of northern Australia.

We want to:

  • find out what local people know about deliberate fire-spreading behavior by raptors

  • independently document this behavior to the satisfaction of biologists

  • generate discussion on what this means for ornithology, ethnoornithology, fire ecology and landscape history


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.

There are two commonly accepted sources of fire in Australia – anthropogenic and lightning. But is there a third cause?

  • Here we examine evidence that 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

  • We apply ethnobiological research methods to reveals roles of these “fire birds” in both traditional knowledge and ceremonies and in land management.

Methodology (2010-present)

  • [biological data are (relatively) abundant; focus here  on ID of relevant ethnobiological research methods and materials];

  • extensive literature research (both specialist academic and ‘grey’ literature): general and specific anthropological studies, linguistic texts, particularly dictionary and grammar materials, and fire-related literature.;

  • formal semi-structured interviews (including follow-ups) with non-Aboriginal (n=7) and Aboriginal (n=18) fire and land managers working in the Northern Territory savanna;

  • formal semi-structured interviews (including follow-ups) with Aboriginal ceremonial participants and senior ceremonial practitioners (n=15);

  • we issued calls for comments and submission of observations through mainstream and social media networks that have provided a number of useful contacts and further research cues; and

  • we are preparing a field-based collaborative research program (working with Aboriginal ranger groups at Jawoyn, Mimal & Ngukurr) for the 2017 Top End fire season.


Brown Falcon – Falco berigora Vigors and Horsfield, 1827.

Medium-sized long-legged, buteo-like falcon. Adults extremely variable: from tan and buff to chocolate brown with variable white underparts (males tend to have more white), to near black all over (with some barring visible in wing and tail).

Throughout Australia and New Guinea, in open woodland, savanna, grassland, farmland, and desert up to about 6,600 ft.

Adults sedentary. 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.


Black Kite Milvus migrans Boddaert, 1783

Medium-sized, latest global population estimates run up to 6 million individuals. Opportunistic hunters more likely to scavenge.

Distributed through temperate and tropical parts of Eurasia & 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.

Subspecies: M. m. migrans, M. m. lineatus, M. m. govinda, M. m. affinis, M. m. formosanus


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.

Local Aboriginal people believe that Brown Falcons and Black Kites set fires by carrying burning sticks to new locations and drop them into dry grass on unburnt grounds.

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.

Evidence categories

Direct evidence from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land-managers and fire “fighters” of observations of raptors carrying burning sticks from burned ground to unburnt ground;

Direct evidence 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;

Inferences made by collaborators listed above – anomalous fire-jumping behavioir imputed to raptors (particularly Garrkan)

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 expressed surprise at seeing this conduct and struggled to incorporate it into their broad fire-related knowledge;

2 — Aboriginal collaborators – 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 our 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 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.


  • There is compelling evidence that at least two raptor species – the Brown Falcon and the Black Kite – act as propagators of fires within the Australian savanna woodlands;

  • Brown Falcon is the main figure in both Jawoyn and Ngukurr: (1) spreading fire from existing bushfires; (2) starting bushfires (particularly in long grass) by stealing burning brands/embers from cooking fires

  • This  has important implications for our understanding of the history of fire in the Australian savanna woodlands (and potentially elsewhere)

  • 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 needs further research.

Future Research (2017 – )

  • Collaborative publication of existing data;

  • Collaboration with Jawoyn Ranger Group & Yugal Mangi Rangers (Ngukurr—SE Arnhem Land IPA) and other ranger groups: accompanying to fire sites; controlled burns to attract raptors and record behavior; staging of ‘outside’ components of fire ceremonies;

  • Documentation of fire-spreading behavior by Brown Falcons at fire fronts, from cooking fires, etc. (by film crew/s) that will establish unequivocally the existence of the behaviour;

  • Ongoing solicitation of firsthand & secondhand reports, and inferrences of fire-spreading behavior, from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fire managers and others;

  • Burned Area 3D Mapping Using SFM2 Software and Phantom 4 UAV;

  • (Funding mechanisms /consolidation of research team.