This is a re-post of a piece by Andrew Stafford a Brisbane-based journalist who writes widely on music, sport and birds and birding. It was first published at Staffo’s Patreon page, where, for not much more than the price of a cup of coffee a month, you can read more of his wonderful words. You can—and should— follow Staff on Twitter @staffo_sez.

The use and control of fire has long been assumed to be a skill unique to humans. Or at least, it’s a Western assumption – one that may not be shared by this country’s Aboriginal people, at least not those of northern Australia. According to a fascinating paper recently published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, it’s possible that birds of prey beat us to it. Moreover, it’s a phenomenon that’s long been recognised in sacred Aboriginal ceremonies.

But the idea that “firehawks” (a generic term for three widespread Australian raptors, the Black Kite, Whistling Kite and Brown Falcon) might intentionally spread bushfires to smoke out prey has for decades been treated with scepticism in scientific circles. This carefully written paper, by multiple authors including Alice Springs-based lawyer and blogger Bob Gosford, may finally change that.

It documents both Indigenous ecological knowledge and many first-hand observations by non-Indigenous people, including firefighters, of these avian pyromaniacs. As fires burn themselves out, the hawks pick up burning or smoking material – presumably at some risk to themselves – and carry it up to a kilometre before dropping it in unburned areas with the aim of creating fresh fronts on which to forage (as well as fresh headaches for firefighters).

There’s a delicious tension in the paper’s combination of new and ancient knowledge. It claims that across the world, sacred traditions connect raptors, crows and even cockatoos to the origins of fire. In Australia, it notes that around Ngukurr, in the Roper River region of the southern Top End, the Yabaduruwa ceremony sees Aboriginal people carrying out re-enactments of raptors both carrying and propagating fire.

This is not “new” news either – indeed, as Gosford et al note, it’s been the subject of numerous anthropological studies dating back to at least 1960. But the tendency appears to have been to view such stories as a Dreaming myth, despite very specific and highly vivid accounts such as the following by Alawa man Waipuldanya (European name Philip Roberts, from his ghostwritten book I, The Aboriginal, 1963):

The kitehawks – we call them firehawks – are inventive hunters. Much of their natural food is caught and eaten on the wing, especially around the perimeters of bushfires where they swoop on fleeing grasshoppers … Firehawks often confused us in welcoming visitors to our tribal lands by deliberately setting fire to grass and bushland to assist their scavenging. 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 burned out the process was repeated elsewhere … Not only the hawks used the ruse of deliberate grass fires as an aid to hunting. We often did so ourselves, especially towards the end of the long dry season when food was scarce and 10-feet tall speargrass, which burnt readily, was a natural haven for game. It is possible that our forefathers learnt this trick from the birds. (Emphasis added)

This is an extraordinary claim: that the First Nations people of this continent – the oldest known living culture on earth – might have learned at least one way of manipulating fire for their own ends simply by watching birds.

Gosford muses over whether the tendency to dismiss such stories is a manifestation of cultural arrogance or, more innocently, a blind spot. “Mainstream Australian ornithology has never developed an appreciation of Aboriginal knowledge of birds, and so there’s this huge corpus of knowledge that’s just locked away,” he says. He once called Australia an “ornithological Terra Nullius” – a scorching epithet.

At the same time, he and his fellow authors were aware of a serious ethical issue: knowledge about firehawks was intimately connected to sacred ceremonies, sites and traditions. There is “inside” knowledge that only people who have been through the appropriate ceremonies are privy to. So, other than historical accounts such as Waipuldanya’s above, new data from Aboriginal sources has been excluded from this paper.

It’s hoped that future collaborations with Aboriginal authors will expand upon the knowledge summarised in the present paper in a way that will protect “inside” knowledge while reproducing “outside” accounts. For now, the new and most compelling data comes from a series of eyewitness observations, including by Aboriginal fire rangers and non-Indigenous firefighters.

One is co-author Nathan Ferguson. Currently stationed at Tennant Creek 1000 kilometres south of Darwin, he put out fires for the Australian Army for seven years and has been with the Northern Territory Fire and Rescue Service for twice as long again. He reports witnessing avian fire-spreading on multiple occasions, and says it’s a possible variable that he’d heard canvassed in firefighting meetings from close to the beginning of his career.

“It’s quite incredible to watch,” he says. “These birds are dropping down right in front of direct fire – I mean heavy fire, between two and five metres high flame front – diving down in front of that, looking for critters. They’ve got no fear – they know when to back off, or they’ll dive behind the flame front, they’ll pick [a prey item or burning matter] up, or drop it and move on.”

The next step is to try to capture the behaviour on film, which the team are hoping to do during planned field experiments in May, to fully and finally silence the doubters. But heads have already been turned. Dr Stephen Debus, an expert on Australian raptors, and former Birds Queensland president Richard Noske both told New Scientist they were convinced by the weight of evidence presented in the Journal of Ethnobiology paper.

All this has major ramifications for land use and conservation across Australia’s northern savannahs and potentially beyond. Changed fire regimes by Europeans from those practiced for millennia by Aboriginal people wrought dramatic changes on the Australian landscape, a factor which imperilled (and continues to imperil) the existence of many native species. How do we account for birds as another potential fire vector?

Gosford doesn’t have the answer to that, but says it’s a consideration that needs to be factored into discussions. “All of a sudden you’ve got this third actor on the stage,” he says. “It’s not humans, it’s not lightning, it’s birds, so we need to start asking those questions.”

Working on fire fronts to get the money shot on film, however, won’t be easy. It’s a place where white ornithologists have been understandably fearful to tread. “It’s a dangerous place, things can happen really quickly, and you’ve got to be alert,” Gosford says. “That’s why we like working with this mob, with experienced fire managers, because they can say OK, you can go there, but don’t go there; we’ll follow their guidelines.”

For firefighters, the concern has a more pragmatic dimension: the potential threat to life and property. Ferguson says it’s a potential problem that can only be dealt with as it arises. “As a firey, you’re not looking for birds spreading fire; you’re concentrating on doing your job,” he says. “In the dry season in the Top End [you might] control one fire, go around, mop that up, and be called back there again because of a third party being involved.”

Gosford’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the paper was published. While the response in Australia has so far been somewhat muted, a story on New Scientist’s Facebook page was approaching 750K views at last count, with other publications expressing interest from all over the world. It’s already been cited in another, more highly ranked peer-reviewed journal, Evolutionary Ecology.

But he says his team’s primary concern is satisfying their own curiosity and exploring the implications of this old/new knowledge, rather than proving a point. “I think maybe within the scientific community it’s really easy to say oh, it’s not science,” he says. “We’re trying to push against that by presenting data-rich, multiple sightings, but more so to bolster our own conclusions, rather than trying to satisfy the sceptics.”