This is the abstract from our paper, Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia, that was published earlier today in the Journal of Ethnobiology as part of the special section on Birds. I’ll post the abstracts of the other very good papers in that selection soon.

The authors are Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless and Maxwell Witwer.

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas.

Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks.

This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.

Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration.

Via ethno-ornithological workshops and controlled field experiments with land managers, our collaborative research aims to situate fire-spreading as an important factor in fire management and fire ecology.

In a broader sense, better understanding of avian fire-spreading, both in Australia and, potentially, elsewhere, can contribute to theories about the evolution of tropical savannas and the origins of human fire use.


You can see earlier posts on previous research & conference presentations at the links below.

Video at the Mimal Land management ranger group Youtube channel can be seen here.

From May 2017: Talking Birds and Fire at the Barrapunta Bird Workshop, Arnhem Land

From November 2015: Ornithogenic Fire: Raptors as Propagators of Fire in the Australian Savanna

From April 2013: Birds, Fire and Culture – a new research project