This is an edited version of the presentation by Dr Mark Bonta and myself given last week at the Joint Conference of the Society of Ethnobiology & Society for Economic Botany held at the Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin at Madison campus in Madison, Wisconsin (USA).

In this presentation we concentrated on summarising the events and research that led to the publication of the first tranche of our work in the Journal of Ethnobiology late last year (see the abstract here) and the fieldwork we’ve been doing since.

The photo at the top of this post was taken at a fireground at Borroloola in the Northern Territory’s Gulf country in 2012 on the morning after a grass fire set by local volunteer fire fighters. It shows three Black Kites (Milvus migrans) in an aerobatic tussle over a frog the victim of the previous day’s fire.

A few years earlier I’d come across the following reference to avian firespreading in the book I, the Aboriginal, a popular biography (and later film) of Alawa language group man and activist, healthworker and leader Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts.

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.

Because I was working the Gulf and Roper River regions at this time I started asking people whether they’d seen the behaviour that Waipuldanya recorded. The response was quite overwhelming—not only had people seen—or were personally familiar with this firespreading behaviour, but they provided information on links between contemporary ceremonial practises and these birds. I spent the next few years conducting documentary and field research that led to the presentation to the 36th Society of Ethnobiology meeting in April 2013 at Denton, Texas on my research to date that I summarised in a post at The Northern Myth.

Following the media release and attention generated by this research, by 2016 I’d been joined by my colleagues Dr Mark Bonta of Penn State University and Erana Jae Loveless from the University of Arizona at Tucson. In 2016 they (along with Max Witwer of Penn State as an undergraduate field worker) we conducted our first fieldwork sessions in the Northern Territory at Ngukurr (on the Roper River and where Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts had lived) and at Katherine.

At Ngukurr we worked closely with Waipuldanya’s family members (he passed in 1998) and the local Aboriginal ranger group, the Yugal Mangi rangers, in particular Clarrie Rogers, seen here in this photo taken at the Yugal Mangi ranger base..

And here we are at the Jawoyn Ranger base in Katherine, looking over some satellite mapping of the previous years’ burning.

In mid-2017 I travelled to Barrapunta (also known as Emu Springs) in central Arnhem Land to attend at a week-long birds and fire workshop with a group of six ranger groups from the Arnhem Land area (you can see more about that trip here and here). The “Talking Birds” workshop involved senior landowners and Mimal, Warddeken, Djelk, Jawoyn, Arafura and Wardaman ranger groups joining with scientists and researchers, linguists and ecotourism providers. This photo of the attendees was taken by Darwin photographer and bird guide Laurie Ross.

Then followed months of transcribing interviews, wrangling with drafts and maps and much more. By October 2017 we’d settled on a final version of our paper and it was accepted by the editors of the Journal of Ethnobiology and published in the December edition.

Our paper documented 21 records of the firespreading behaviour spread across the Top End of Australia—from De Grey station south of Broome to Cape York.

Following the release of our paper we were more than pleasantly surprised by the interest shown in our work. January and February 2018 were taken up with responses to media queries from around the world and numerous print and radio interviews. The following shows just some of the media interest, including journals of record from Europe and the US.

The birds that steal fire. New Scientist, January 2018. (UK)

Birds of prey spread fires. New Scientist. (UK) Video, 742,000 online views

Birds That Start Fires: Using Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to Understand Animal Behavior PLOS One. (USA)

As “aves incendiárias” que usam o fogo para facilitar a caça. BBC Brazil.

Australijskie ptaki drapieżne umieją posługiwać się ogniem. Polska Agencja Prasowa (Poland)

Le milan noir, oiseau pyromane. Le Monde. (France)

I rapaci australiani incendiano i boschi per stanare le prede. La Stampa. (Italy)

Attenti Al Falco Per Cacciare Fa Il Piromane. La Repubblica (Italy)

In Australia, Arsonists May Have Wings. The New York Times. (US)

Des Oiseaux pyromanes. La Recherche (France)

Later in 2018 we conducted another round of fieldwork, catching up with our co-author Nathan Ferguson in Tennant Creek, where we spent a fruitful couple of days at a large fire outside of town and refined our field data collection methods. Here are a couple of photos from that time, including the crew—Brian, Shaun and John—of Pennsylvanian birdwatchers that came along as data collectors and photographers.

After a few days at Tennant Creek we travelled up to Katherine and caught up with the Jawoyn Ranger group again. They took us out to a location in the south-western Arnhem Land foothills known as Nitbarnjarn, where they would spend a few days doing protective burns around a tourism base and local rock art locations. We spent our time there gathering very useful data on fire and bird behaviour and more. Here is a photo around the breakfast fire during the camp.

So what next?

  • Drafting a new paper incorporating local Aboriginal knowledge of fire-spreading behaviour – using previously-recorded and new interviews and linking earlier anthropological research on firespreading behaviour as a part of contemporary ceremonial practice throughout Arnhem Land NT & beyond.
  • Analysing recent field datasets and methodologies – concentrating on bird guilds at firefronts, behaviour of different species between individuals and species, weather, fire and fire-ground characteristics, use of drone and remote sensing technologies etc
  • Investigating the possibility of similar behaviour occurring in other savanna biomes – preliminary information to hand suggests it may occur, particularly where there are frequent fires and Black Kites present and one account of Fork-tailed Drongo from Zimbabwe
  • Three conference presentations in 2018 and further field work in 2019 and 2020.

Contacts for further information:

Bob Gosford

E:  [email protected]

[email protected]

Dr Mark Bonta

E:   [email protected]

The Arsonist Raptors in Northern Australia Facebook page