Birds are incredibly intelligent animals. They work through certain probability problems better than some students, they communicate with people in order to hunt, they build structures with perspective in mind, they can figure out other birds’ desires, and they use and modify tools. Well, now we have one more thing to add to the list. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, at least three species of bird (Black Kites, Whistling Kites, and Brown Falcons) also use fire!
It has been known for some time that certain birds of prey tend to congregate near wildfires. Most animals flee from fire, and that’s why the birds are there. After all, the fire is essentially flushing small animals out of the underbrush, making them easy prey for the birds. Now it’s not all that surprising for birds to notice the abundance of easy prey near a fire and eventually figure out that there is an association between fire and prey. However, the authors of this study confirmed something that Aboriginal Australians had known for quite some time – birds actually spread the fires to get even more prey!
This “fire spreading” has been depicted in sacred rituals of the Aboriginal Australians, but many non-Aboriginals have expressed skepticism. As a result, the authors of the study decided to conduct detailed interviews with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to see if they could both confirm the behavior and figure out a pattern to it. Two of them (Ferguson and Eussen) also reviewed their own observations over years of field work in Australia. Based on the interviews and those observations, a pattern emerged.
These three species of bird will grab a smoldering object from one fire and then fly to an area where there isn’t any fire. They will then drop the object, attempting to start another fire there. Not only will they take smoldering objects from forest fires, they have been observed stealing from campfires as well! This is not only done on an individual basis, but sometimes the birds work together so that more fire can be spread.
The authors indicate that this behavior can be an important consideration for managing both controlled burns as well as wildfires. After all, if you build a firebreak in order to stop a fire, a bird might end up helping the fire jump that firebreak. They plan to do another study with rangers who will set up controlled burns so that they can observe (and hopefully better document) this behavior.
Of course, this study applies only to Australian birds of prey (and so far, only three specific species). However, you have to wonder how widespread this behavior is. Could it be that birds are helping to spread Californian wildfires? How would firefighters take this into account? Perhaps the authors of this study (and other scientists) will get to know the birds’ behavior well enough for such questions to be answered.
For me, there are two other important takeaways from this study. First, it further illustrates just how intelligent birds are. Second, it tells us that we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the tales told in sacred rituals. Had people not dismissed the fire-spreading behavior of birds depicted in Aboriginal rituals, we would probably already know a lot more about this amazing phenomenon!