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?
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.
The workshop allowed for clarification of the rather confusing overlap of three bird names, karrkkanj, ngalmirlangmirlang and wunwunbu. Karrkkanj, it turns out, is a term for the Black Kite but can also be applied to two other raptor species, the Peregrine Falcon and the Brown Falcon.
Karrkkanj is a term for the Black Kite but can also be applied to two other raptor species, the Peregrine Falcon and the Brown Falcon, Professor Evans explains. The Peregrine Falcon can also be known more specifically as ngalmirlangmirlang and the Brown Falcon as wunwunbu; these are said to be husband and wife. Karrkkanj is also ritually significant as the one who founded the Lorrkkon mortuary cycle.
Fire provides the opportunity for pyrophilic behaviour by some birds. Brown Falcons perch at the fire-front waiting for grasshoppers, frogs, snakes, lizards and small mammals. Whistling Kites 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.
Anecdotal historical reports from qualified observers support the hypothesis that this is a hitherto-undocumented tool-using behavior that, if verified to satisfy the standards of Western ecologists, will have important ramifications for understanding pyrophytic landscape evolution as well as human-bird relationships.
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
If you like Australian raptors and a big sky there is no better place to get both at the same time than the Barkly Tablelands in the heartland of the Northern Territory.
Three birds, a dead frog and a fire. A few hours at the site of a grass fire outside the small Gulf town of Borroloola.
Is our landscape one shaped by humans and weather forces or might other agents - like birds - be in part responsible for the spread of fire across our landscapes? There are more questions here than answers...so far.