Can Birds Actually Start Forest Fires?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that certain birds of prey use fire to their advantage—but the research hasn’t been caught on camera yet.

The ability to control fire is supposed to be one of human beings’ greatest achievements—but we may not be alone, or even trendsetters in our ability to do so. Preliminary research suggests that birds—specifically the Brown Falcons and Black Kites of Australia—may also use fire to their advantage when they want to. Their opportunistic adaption has nothing to do with cooking, but it has everything to do with food—the fires they supposedly set help them hunt prey.

The research is not yet published or peer-reviewed—right now it’s based on the anecdotal evidence collected by Bob Gosford, an Australian lawyer who represents the interests of aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory, with assistance from Penn State geographer Dr. Mark Bonta. The evidence suggests that the kites and falcons native to Australian savannah have wised up to the fact that the habitat hosts many forest fires during the dry season, and use that to their advantage. The birds pick up burning sticks and drop them in places they suspect delicious prey may be hiding. Then, as lizards, snakes, frogs, and smaller birds scurry away from the flames, the predators are in perfect position to attack. 

That anecdotal evidence is sourced from personal testimonies by Australian firefighters and aboriginal people, as well as historical literature, and amounts to 14 firsthand narratives of this specific occurrence. The notion of the birds’ pyromaniac behavior is even present in an aboriginal ceremony where elders dress up as the Brown Falcons and Black Kites and move flaming sticks to spread fire in a symbolic, yet sacred, gesture, according to Gosford.

“Aboriginal people, when they talk about a good fire, say that it’s a fire with a lot of kites on it,” says Gosford, who has also completed post-graduate ornithology courses at Charles Sturt University in Australia. He thinks this expression illustrates the underlying cultural tie that the aboriginal people have between these “fire birds” and the notion of fire propagation.

“This is ethno-biological research,” says Gosford, noting that he presented the work at several conferences in November 2015. “It’s also based upon repeated observations through the telling of mythical stories, by personal observations and recollections that are informed across generations.”

Currently, there is no physical proof of this action—which makes skeptics doubtful. For example, Steve Debus, an expert in predatory birds from the University of New England, told The Daily Mail that he thought it would be hard to prove whether the birds were purposely picking up burning sticks to spread fire or if the action were merely accidental. He added, though that he thought “Black Kites and Brown Falcons are sufficiently intelligent to intentionally spread fires by dropping burning embers, because Black Kites have been seen to drop bread scraps from picnic areas into nearby waterholes to bait fish within striking range.”

“Informants will tell you if you are in the right place at the right time, you can see this,” Gosford says. And that’s exactly the next step in the research, according to Bonta. He plans to travel to Australia soon to assist Gosford with the field study research, and hopes that they’ll gather photographic evidence of the behavior during this year’s Northern Australian fire season, which (due to El Nino) is predicted to be long and severe.

Until physical proof can be gathered and submitted to a biology or ecology journal, the research remains an “ethno-ornithological study involving peer review of ethnographic evidence only,” he says.

Not that the ethnographic component doesn’t interest Bonta—he has already developed a pseudo-hypothesis that supposes birds have long controlled fire and early humans may have been inspired to do the same after witnessing this trait. “There’s some background in this within anthropology showing that humans interact with other species and learn from them,” he says. That is, if they’re able to prove that birds control fire in the first place.