Australian Birds Keep Committing Arson

Australian Birds Keep Committing Arson

A few different Aboriginal legends talk about birds carrying burning sticks in their beaks. One tells of a Kerrk (the bird we call the black kite) stealing fire from a dingo to cook, and continuing to cook with fire today. Another says a firehawk (a brown falcon) brought humans a burning stick and gave us the gift of fire that way.

So in 1964, when an autobiography called I, the Aboriginal talked about actual birds picking up burning wood and using it to hunt, few took the idea seriously. The author, Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts, had to be just riffing on the old legend, right? Animals don't use tools—tool-making is a uniquely human skill.

In the decades since then, we've actually found quite a few examples of animals using tools. That includes black kites, who we regularly see pick up bread and then drop it in the water to lure out fish. And finally, scientists decided to follow up on the rumors and see if these raptors (black kites and brown falcons) really can hunt with fire.

They do. We've been able to most easily observe it with fires that we set on purpose, as part of land management to prevent uncontrolled fires. The fire will spread till the breaking point we previously set up, and then a raptor will sweep in, pick up a burning stick, take it to a fresh patch of land, and set that on fire too. Out of the burning brush come rodents and lizards, fleeing, and the raptor swoops down and snatches them up.

We don't know if these birds are responsible for any particularly huge wildfires, but it's possible, which is why some ranchers have taken to killing them on sight (even though that's against the law). It's definitely possible that the birds are only doing this because "firehawk" is such a cool name. Much cooler than the name that the British military (seriously) assigned the black kite: the shite-hawk. 

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For more animals too smart for our own good, check out:

Rio the Logical Sea Lion

Kanzi the Chimp Can Cook His Own Food

Pigeons Are Superstitious

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: fir0002/Wiki Commons

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