Raptors, including the whistling kite, are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia, a research paper argues. The reason: to flush out prey and feast

Black kites
© Bob GosfordBlack kites (Milvus migrans) visit a grass fire in Borroloola, Northern Territory, Australia, in 2014.
Dick Eussen thought he had the fire beat. It was stuck on one side of a highway deep in the Australian outback. But it didn't look set to jump. And then, suddenly, without warning or obvious cause, it did.

Eussen, a veteran firefighter in the Northern Territory, set off after the new flames. He found them, put them out, then looked up into the sky.

What he saw sounds now like something out of a fairy tale or dark myth. A whistling kite, wings spread, held a burning twig in its talons. It flew about 20 metres ahead of Eussen and dropped the ember into the brittle grass.

And the fire kicked off once again.

All told that day, Eussen put out seven new flare-ups, according to a research paper published recently in the Journal of Ethnobiology. All of them, he claims, were caused by the birds and their burning sticks.

What's more, the paper argues, the birds might well have been doing it on purpose.

Raptors, including the whistling kite, are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia, the paper argues. The reason: to flush out prey and feast.

"Black kites and brown falcons come to these fronts because it is just literally a killing frenzy, it's a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire," Bob Gosford, one of the authors of the paper, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2016.

The concept of fire-foraging birds is well established. Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What's new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. "My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he'd seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass," he told ABC.

Black kites
© Dick EussenBlack kites (Milvus migrans) circle near a roadway during a fire on the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, Australia.
Working with Marc Bonta, an American academic, Gosford searched the historical record for other reports of fire-spreading raptors in Australia. He solicited first-hand accounts of the behaviour online, then personally interviewed those who claimed to have witnessed it.

What Bonta and Gosford found was that the idea of fire-spreading was well known and accepted among residents, and particularly aboriginals, of rural northern Australia. The researchers found first-hand reports of fire-spreading among 12 separate aboriginal groups, while three different species of raptor- the black kite, whistling kite and brown falcon - were definitively identified as fire spreaders.

In the paper, Gosford, Bonta and their co-authors also reported six new first-hand accounts of birds spreading fire.

"MJ," a Kimberley, (Western Australia) cattle station caretaker manager, "saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places," they write. "The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station's infrastructure."

Bob White, a firefighter in the Northern Territory saw a small group of raptors, likely black kites, "pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley."

Nathan Ferguson claims to have observed fire spreading about a dozen times in the Northern Territory since 2001. The long-time firefighter is adamant that the birds he's observed - picking up twigs and starting new fires - were doing so on purpose.

That jibes with the other research Gosford and Bonta dug up. "Most accounts and traditions unequivocally indicate intentionality on the part of three raptor species," they wrote.

Despite years of trying, the authors also failed to find unequivocal photo or video evidence of the birds spreading fires. In the paper, they chalk that up, in part, to the difficulty and dangers of performing scientific research on the edge of a brush fire.

There is a picture in the paper, though, taken by Eussen. It's in black and white and it shows a patch of sparse brush edging up on a rural road. In the background, smoke crowds the trees. Just visible behind the bush line is the low glow of a burning fire. In the foreground, above the road, dark shadows flap notched wings. The black kites have arrived, and they are ready for their frightened prey.