These Birds Use Fire to Hunt Their Prey

in Science & Tech by

Black Kite (bird)

Australia is home to a variety of dangerous creatures – from spiders to crocodiles and snakes – and recently it was revealed they also have to contend with birds that set fires.

A new study based on numerous observations has identified three species of birds of prey that deliberately spread forest fires to force animals to flee the flames and therefore be able to hunt them more easily.

Bob Gosford, an ornithologist at the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, co-authored the research that that identified the birds as the black kite (Milvus migrans), the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and the berigora falcon (Falco berigora).

The birds set the fire by carrying a lit twig with their beak or claws which they then drop in a spot that has not been reached by the flames.

Awareness of birds having the ability to spread fires has a long history in Australia, including in ancient ceremonial dances by the aboriginal cultures of the country.

But when Gosford first published the result of his initial observations in 2016, many bird behavior experts reacted with skepticism. One of the new testimonies came from his fellow study co-author, photojournalist Dick Eussen, who observed this behavior when trying to extinguish a Northern Territory fire in the 1980s.

It is not yet clear how common this behavior is, but according to the evidence the birds only resort to this hunting technique if a fire has reached its limit of expansion and threatens to go out.

To understand the frequency of the practice – and whether it is unique to these species or is also practiced by others, both in Australia and in the rest of the world – researchers plan to carry out experiments under controlled conditions.

Another interesting angle that emerges from these observations is that it is quite possible birds beat out humans when it comes to using fire.

The oldest confirmed evidence of humans using fire dates back 400,000 years (although a new theory believes it could possibly be closer to 1.6 million years ago) . However, birds of prey have been on the planet millions of years before that – with the evolution of birds beginning in the Jurassic Period – so they may have discovered this hunting method before humans even existed.

Photo – black kite (milvus migrans): Wikimedia Commons (cc)