Claim: Birds of Prey Deliberately Setting Wildfires

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans) – one of the species accused of setting fires. By Mayukhghose (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

So much for fire control – JoNova reports that raptors have been photographed congregating on the edge of large Australian bushfires, picking up burning sticks, and deliberately setting new spot fires in advance of the main blaze to flush out small mammals and other prey. This discovery potentially has profound implications for fire management in places like California.

Burn, Baby, Burn: Australian Birds Steal Fire to Smoke Out Prey

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | January 9, 2018 11:23am ET

Grassland fires that are deadly and devastating events for many kinds of wildlife are a boon to certain types of birds known as fire foragers. These opportunists prey on animals fleeing from a blaze, or scavenge the remains of creatures that succumbed to the flames and the smoke.

But in Australia, some fire-foraging birds are also fire starters.

Three species of raptors — predatory birds with sharp beaks and talons, and keen eyesight — are widely known not only for lurking on the fringes of fires but also for snatching up smoldering grasses or branches and using them to kindle fresh flames, to smoke out mammal and insect prey.

Scientists recently collected and evaluated reports from Aboriginal and nonindigenous people of these so-called firehawks — black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcons (Falco berigora) — to better understand this unusual behavior, and to evaluate its implications for fire management in regions where the birds are active, the researchers wrote in a new study.

Aboriginal people in some parts of northern Australia referenced the fire-spreading actions of firehawks in sacred rituals and noted numerous sightings of the firehawks. In total, the study authors identified 12 Aboriginal groups in which people described firsthand sightings of raptors deliberately setting new fires with smoldering brands salvaged from existing fires, acting on their own and cooperating with other birds.

Read more (contains photographs):

The abstract of the referenced study;

Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia

Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland. Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration. Via ethno-ornithological workshops and controlled field experiments with land managers, our collaborative research aims to situate fire-spreading as an important factor in fire management and fire ecology. In a broader sense, better understanding of avian fire-spreading, both in Australia and, potentially, elsewhere, can contribute to theories about the evolution of tropical savannas and the origins of human fire use.

Read more:

I’ve personally seen Aussie raptors do phenomenally clever things. Australia used to have a serious problem with introduced cane toads. The toads are toxic, so they spread like crazy, the predators which would normally keep such a pest under control all died when they tried to eat the toads.

Then somewhere, somewhen, an Australian bird figured out how to eat the toads without getting poisoned – they flip the toads over and eat out their stomachs, leaving the toxic parts of the flesh uneaten.

Nowadays cane toads are a lot rarer, and in toad season it is not unusual to find dried out toad corpses with no stomachs.

I have never seen a bird deliberately spreading fire in the way described by the study – but it never occurred to me to hang around and observe, on the few occasions I found myself uncomfortably close to a dangerous fire. From what I have personally seen of Australian birds using sticks as tools, and other highly intelligent behaviour, I think this claim is credible.

If Australian raptors have learned to use fire to flush out prey, perhaps birds in other fire prone places like California also deliberately start spot fires using embers from other fires. I suggest this possibility is worth investigating, because if birds in your neighbourhood help fires jump fire breaks, this needs to be considered when preparing local fire management plans.

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Juan Slayton
January 13, 2018 1:15 pm

Fascinating observations. But not obvious how a fire management plan could counter this behavior.

Jeroen B.
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 13, 2018 1:17 pm

By adding shotguns loaded with birdshot to the fire truck loadout of course.
not sure if /sarc …

Rick C PE
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 13, 2018 1:21 pm

Put up a lot of wind turbines in fire prone areas. Problem solved.

Walter Sobchak
Reply to  Rick C PE
January 13, 2018 3:39 pm

Which problem?

Reply to  Rick C PE
January 14, 2018 12:15 am

Not exactly. Wind turbines catch fire and fling it far and wide, too.

Javert Chip
Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 13, 2018 3:58 pm

Anybody have a video of this happening?

I’m not saying it can’t happen, but I want to see a bird deliberately pick up & transport fire.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 13, 2018 4:30 pm

Haven’t you been aware of the worldwide scarcity of smartphones and video cameras to capture such behaviour?

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 13, 2018 6:21 pm

I think this claim may be credible, too.

I watched a NOVA science program about a week or two ago that detailed the intelligence of birds. In this study they used ravens and parrots, and you would be amazed at just how intelligent they are.

Ravens and parrots are both long-lived species. Some parrots can live up to 80 years.

These birds used tools (sticks) to get food in a number of circumstances, and the scientists would change the circumstances and the birds understood the problem they faced and took a different approach and got their food.

One experiment had a tester stand on one side of a narrow table, with a raven on the other side, and two upside down cups on the table. Under one cup was food for the bird. The human tester would remain perfectly still and would only move his eyes. He would look the bird in the eye, and then he would look at only the cup that had the treat under it. The bird understood what was going on and picked the correct cup every time.

They also did a demonstration showing the ravens could recognize individual human beings.

It was a fascinating program.

One thing I found interesting was they were talking about a comparison of the brains of large birds like the Ravens and Parrots with smaller birds, and they said that although the smaller birds had smaller brains, the smaller birds brains had more neurons packed into a given volume than did the larger birds.

So a smaller brain may not mean the animal is less intelligent.

I think we underestimate the intelligence of all animals.

I live in what would be called “copperhead territory”, right beside a creek in a rural setting in Oklahoma. I have this habit of not killing snakes. I let them go about their business usually.

One day I walked out side to go to my mailbox and stopped to open the gate and I looked down on the ground and not six inches from the end of my shoe lay a two-foot long copperhead snake. It was laying straight as a string, and it didn’t move a muscle when I stepped right up to it.

I took a giant step backwards 🙂 and the snake still didn’t move, and I went back in the house and watched it from there and after about two minutes it started moving and went off out of sight and out of my yard.

Normally, a copperhead snake is not going to lay perfectly still in an exposed position when a human approaches. They will either curl up into their defensive position or they will try to get away just as fast as they can.

This snake just layed there and I wondered to myself at the time, if that snake wasn’t one I had run across in the past and had not molested it and the snake remembered me and did not fear me.

I know that sounds a little weird but now that I know small animals may have more brainpower than previously thought, I could be on to something. Even the snakes may be smarter than we thought. 🙂

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 13, 2018 8:17 pm

Here is a link to the NOVA/PBS broadcast of “Bird Brains”.

Watch this and you will be amazed.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 2:00 am


Ravens and large Parrots are exceptional. Personally I think Ravens may well be as smart as e. g. chimpanzees. Raptors are a lot dumber, but even so they might well have learned to set fires. I know from personal expoerience that they definitely congregate in large numbers at bushfires in Australia.

Ted Midd
Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 2:42 am

A few things to consider if you expect to see a video of this happening. The first is that it would need to occur where someone with a camera happens to be at the appropriate time. The second is they would need to anticipate such behavior and have time to get the footage. The third is that it would have to be in an environment where you can actually see the action.

I have personally witnessed raptors flying along the fire-front of a low intensity fire and swooping on emerging small animals, and done so on a number of occasions. You may wish to look at this link

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 8:29 am

London, not many people hang around the leading edge of wildfires in hopes of capturing interesting video.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 8:33 am

TA, I would think that if the snake didn’t fear you, it would have just gone about it’s business and ignored you completely.
This sounds more like a hiding behavior. The snake didn’t move in order to avoid being spotted. That would also explain why it didn’t move until after you had been gone for a couple of minutes.
2 ft is a fairly small copperhead, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t try threatening tactics. It’s not big enough yet to be threatening.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 10:06 am

There are plenty of amusing videos available that film Australian eagles taking out drones.

A copperhead’s survival instinct is to freeze, and ideally blend into it’s environment.

If that copperhead had been laying on a bed of fallen leaves, you might never have seen the snake. I’ve accidently spotted copperheads, then when I took my eyes off the snake, I would have to search intently to spot the snake again.

Over a period of about ten years, I found copperheads near, and directly on, my front step approximately every other year.
That is, until I learned to not leave my front light on for most of the night. The simple food chain being that bug lights still attract insects, insects attract toads, toads attract copperheads. I didn’t want to know what would eat copperheads; though large black snakes (rat snakes) are common hereabouts.

Twice, I arrived home after dark, from work, and luckily spotted unusual patterns on my front step. Another time, my son’s friends arrived with the outside light off, and called in to us to turn on the light. They also spotted something unusual on the step, and well knew our predilection for visiting copperheads.
It is kind of interesting that if the front light was on, the snakes would be immediately next to the steps in the small flowerbed. I wondered if the brick steps retained warmth that encouraged snakes to move onto the steps when dark. Pure speculation, as I never tested the theory and I’m not about to turn the light back on for weeks at a time to find out.
It’s not so much the snakes, it’s toads and their feces along with toads’ propensity to burrow into flower pots during the days, harming the plants.

There were also copperheads which holed up under one of my nearby azalea/boxwood/forsythia bushes.
Copperheads’ that are exposed and directly approached usually, not always, freeze motionless and count on their camouflage. The older the snake, the greater the likelihood it would freeze, not move.
At 24″ (61cm), I would easily classify that snake as an older copperhead; especially if it was heavy bodied.

The older snakes bedded under my carport/walkway border plants were easy to catch. Staying frozen until I hooked them with a stick. Younger copperheads, say 18″ (46cm) and slim, were much dicier to capture. Especially as they quickly figured out that my heading towards them meant I intended interference.

One younger snake found a mouse hole where it could hide under my pavement. Staying under it’s chosen bush for a number of days before I was able to capture it. That bush is located right where a car driver’s door is located in my carport; yet most people had no clue that their feet would be inches away from a copperhead.
Unless irritated or stepped on, copperheads rarely strike.

The method I used to capture that snake is not recommended for those who are kind natured.
I took a length of duck tape and rolled a tape cylinder backwards, with the adhesive facing outwards; then encircled the mouse hole with the tape cylinder.
Snake skins adhere excessively well to adhesives.
Bound up with tape, the snake couldn’t retreat into a small hole. Indeed it could not exit the bush.

I broke off the adhering branches, picked up snake and tape, chilled the snake, Pushed the head and upper body into a tube, then used peanut oil to slowly separate snake from tape. As one peels off the tape, the oil prevents it from adhering again. A slow process where the tape is slowly pulled backwards parallel to the snake surface, never away from the snake.

After letting the local Boy Scouts get a good look at a de-taped copperhead that was very willing to show it’s fangs, in a fifty gallon trash drum; I released that snake a long way away from civilians. Since I doubted that snake would ever tolerate humans getting close again.

Hurricane Isabel knocked down trees on all four side of my house. Fortunately, every tree came down when affected by wind running parallel to that side, so none of the trees hit the house.
As so many Father’s do when faced with a lot of work, I introduced my young teen son to chainsawing those fallen trees.
For side amusement, my Father bought himself his first chain saw. Then when my Wife and I showed up for Christmas, he invited me outside to “test” his chain saw present.
Needless to mention that there was a large oak tree downed in my Father’s back yard. We cut up a large portion before he was satisfied that got to use his new toy enough, and that we were ready for dinner… 🙂
It wasn’t a surprise. I knew what would happen as soon as Dad mentioned his new present; I just didn’t know about the oak tree.

My son and I worked through holding, starting, approach angles, what not to do and applying the saw blade; then I knelt next to the tree and demonstrated how to saw through a tree thicker than a saw blade is long.
I stood up and my son kneeled down and try his hand at chain sawing the tree, a Bradford pear.
Almost immediately, I yelled into his ear to shut off the saw and step straight back.
I helped him to step straight backwards through appropriate use of his collar.

One of the prettiest adult copperheads I’ve ever seen was moving through the grass away from the tree. She was apparently camped under a hollow caused by a branch previously breaking off the tree and our noise and vibration finally caused her to move.
Both of our knees would have been next to the snake. That snake ignored all of our education noise, body positioning and maneuvering; only moving when we were actually disturbing the tree.

Much as every older poisonous snake I’ve come across, that snake never tensed until I got a stick across it’s neck. That snake left no doubt that it knew what I could only guess; and that was the exact distance I would have to transgress for a snake strike to become a bite.
Smaller, younger snakes may strike blind repeatedly, mostly as attempts to frighten; older snakes tend to know their strike ranges and danger zones explicitly.

That copperhead was beautiful with clear markings and brilliant colors, that instead of releasing it miles away; we transformed a surplus aquarium into a poisonous snake terrarium and donated snake and terrarium to a local nature shelter.

However, even as that brightly colored snake moved through the lawn’s grass, it could be hard to see as it blended so well with what was under the grass. Nor did that snake ever curl, until I placed a stick across it’s neck; and that includes my letting the snake slither over the stick so I could lift it and move it to a better location, (wider open, fewer hiding spots, lower grass).

The only copperhead killed, was one I accidently drove over when backing out to head off to work well before sunup. I found that flat dead snake, when I arrived back home late that day.
I’m kind of surprised the buzzards or bald eagles had not carried it off.

Just as with much of nature, animals, e.g. snakes, arrive when and where their prey are abundant.
I often told urbanite co-workers that animals, such as snakes, are good news/bad news. i.e. many/most snakes eat critters we consider vermin.
The good news is that the snake is eating vermin.
The bad news is that the snake’s presence means there vermin. Killing snakes, simply removes a vermin control.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 10:39 am

ATheoK wrote: “I helped him to step straight backwards through appropriate use of his collar.”

That’s funny! I enjoyed your relating of your copperhead experiences.

My experience has been that snakes don’t just sit there and let you walk up close to them, they will make some move. I count on it to let me know they are there. I also beat the grass in front of me with a stick as I walk, if the grass is too high. The only time I have seen them lay there still is when it is a little too cold for them. I suppose there were some who remained still and I never noticed them.

I saw an albino copperhead one year. It was a big one, about three feet long and very fat. It was early March or thereabouts and early in the morning and I guess it was just too cold for the snake because it could hardly move when I walked up on it, although it tried.

MarkW, I have a walkway paved with large stones and the stone this snake was laying on was about three feet in diameter, with no grass around it or other cover, so the snake was completely exposed with nowhere to run, but I suppose it could have thought it was blending in to the rock surface.

It was a fairly young copperhead. It was about two feet long but it was not very big around. about an inch in diameter. Copperheads don’t get too long, a three-footer is a long one, but they will get very large around the middle, and the fatter they are the older they are.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 3:03 pm

I’m sceptical as well. More likely these birds have learned to watch blown embers for a flare up that will send mice scurrying.

Reply to  Juan Slayton
January 13, 2018 8:41 pm

“…not obvious how a fire management plan could counter this behavior.”

Firstly, by putting more emphasis on basic fire prevention measures, such as reducing ground cover to reduce the likelihood of fires starting.

Secondly, reducing ground cover will reduce the severity of the fires that are started.

Reply to  Hivemind
January 14, 2018 11:31 pm

Errr….. the areas where these raptors spread fires are mostly savannah and it is the “ground cover” that cattle eat so the local pastoralists are not likely to want to reduce the said ground cover.

Many of the fires are actually started by the pastoralists just before the start of the wet season, burn slowly and are contained by valley sides. After the rain the newly germinated grasses and shrubs provide stock feed that is enjoyed by cattle [and, a step removed, by their owners].

That the raptors give the fires a bit of a hurry along does not cause anyone any problems except for the grass dwelling fauna.

No one has had camera handy when they’ve seen theM doing it

I’ve seen them waiting at the edge of a fire for newly barbecued lizards but have not seen them throwing a lizard on the barby [as it were].

Mark - Helsinki
January 13, 2018 1:17 pm

I go to share this on facebook and “This message contains content that has been blocked by our security systems.”

it allowed me share the Jonova link, but not WUWT.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 5:59 pm

Yah. Now we know. Its called shadowbanning and regularly practiced by Facebook SJWs. OKeefe got them on video proudly explaining this censorship.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 12:18 am

No doubt a fb glitch – I was able to post it.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 7:28 am

…..And the meek shall inherit the Earth, huh. ‘Meeks’ are hiding in the bushes waiting for the fire. …And by the way — big parrots get eaten by small hawks and smaller falcons and kites.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 8:36 am

O’Keefe usually releases the entire video. The claim that he’s been editing the videos to make them look bad has been discredited. It’s usually issued by those who want to distract from the behavior O’Keefe has uncovered.
The felony he was charged with was pretending to be a federal employee in order to obtain video.
Bad, but it doesn’t discredit the video he obtained.

The Original Mike M
January 13, 2018 1:22 pm

They probably do know how to use fire to their advantage given that they learned how to use human vehicles to their advantage in a much shorter time span –

Gerry, England
Reply to  The Original Mike M
January 14, 2018 2:34 am

In the UK crows among others realised that on motorways the traffic kills a lot of insects that then get blown out to the hard shoulder. So the birds wander the hard shoulder to take advantage of the free food and have worked out that no vehicles use that section…normally. There are a few early casualties when roadworks take place and the hard shoulder is used as a running lane.

Reply to  The Original Mike M
January 14, 2018 7:13 pm

Magpies here in NSW and Victoria swoop on cyclists and pedestrians all the time during spring. But they remember your face. My trick was to get off the bike, put it down, walk slowly up to the tree and put some food down at the bottom of it. The magpie left me completely alone after that, every time, only swooping on others on the path. I wore different clothes but always made sure my face was visible. I tried this a few times on different trees with magpie nests, and it worked 90% of the time. I think the last guy was just cranky.

Mark - Helsinki
January 13, 2018 1:24 pm

crow seemingly skiing on a roof

Mark - Helsinki
January 13, 2018 1:25 pm

or clearing snow looking for morsels

Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 1:27 pm

As a lifelong birder, I seriously doubt that there is any credibility in this. Maybe if it was just one species of corvid in one location, I might believe it. But 3 species of raptor in several areas? Nope! The thought processes involved are just too complicated for bird brains.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 2:21 pm

Not sure why Ian finds that such a stretch. As I recall bush fire is a fundamental driving force in the terrestrial ecology of Australia and the concept that some predatory species might have evolved to incorporate it into their opportunistic hunting strategies is more of a no-brainer than a surprise.

Robin Richards
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 3:49 pm

I think this is extremely unlikely. Have you ever seen a really big bush fire? They create their own wind and burning material is often blown a hundred yards or more ahead of the fire line. Birds may hang around but there is no need for them to worsen the situation.

Last year we had what I think was the most damaging fire ever at a place called Knysna in the Southern Cape, South Africa. About 500 houses were destroyed. The fire jumped about 400 yds across the Knysna Heads which form the exit of the lagoon to the sea.

The fire was caused by very dry conditions accompanied by strong winds. Lots of individual fires broke out many of them caused by electricity poles being blown over by the wind. The problem was exacerbated by relatively recently introduced environmental management laws which make it difficult to clear vegetation which has become a fire hazzard. I believe that this is a problem in California too.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 5:59 pm

Robin, Do you think the birds would pick up these sticks at the fire front with thick smoke or at the flank, upwind?

Gary Kerkin
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 7:06 pm

Robin Richards:

I think this is extremely unlikely. Have you ever seen a really big bush fire? They create their own wind and burning material is often blown a hundred yards or more ahead of the fire line.

This is not necessarily so. As I have described elsewhere on WUWT,. I have experienced a major bushfire in outer Eastern Melbourne in December 1972. On that occasion there was little or no wind. On the other hand there was a major grass fire at Lara between Melbourne and Geelong in 1968 or 1969 in which 5 people died on the Highway trying to escape from their burning vehicles. On that occasion the fire was accompanied by strong winds. When we returned to our flat in inner Melbourne having been away for the day we found charred grass stalks which had blown under our door. Lara to St Kilda in Melbourne is around 70 miles!

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 2:09 am

“Have you ever seen a really big bush fire? They create their own wind and burning material is often blown a hundred yards or more ahead of the fire line. ”

In that case the wind was NOT caused by the fire. Fire induced winds are a well-known phenomenon with large fires “fire-storms”, however the wind in these cases is towards the fire since they are caused by the intense convection/low pressure area above the fire.

And yes I’ve seen a very large bushfire in the Northern Territory. It was very windy, as is usual for really large brushfires, and if the wind direction hadn’t happened to be across rather than parallell to the only escape road I wouldn’t be here.

Ted Midd
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 2:46 am

Robin this won’t be in really big bush fires. It will be in low intensity fire situations that mimic pre European fire management. This will be the fire environment in which such behavior was learned.

wayne Job
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 4:03 am

I have been in a real nasty ozzie bush fire, called ash wednesday. Living in the fringe of a vast eucalyptus forrest. The fire burned gently somewhat east to west behind my property, prepared as one must be in OZ for fires. The wind changed to the north to around 40Kts and my place was showered with embers, the gusts of wind became intense and I had to hang on to trees to stop being blown over. Wearing motor cycle gear full leather as I am an old motorcyclist made me some what fire proof.
Then the fire balls burning the eucalyptus oil in the air started their aerial journeys above my head with a roar more like an atlas rocket than a 747, they bounced their way in a few minutes about fifty miles blew up a lot of houses and killed some people. This can be a bush fire in Oz and the crazy people of Calibloodyfornia have planted eucalypts.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 8:40 am

Brush fires are usually too small to create their own wind. It often takes the addition of trees and a topping fire to get that going.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 7:14 pm

Have you seen the one where the bird bends a piece of wire from a straight piece into a hook so it can get to an insect out of reach and ‘claw’ it out? Amazing.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 7:18 pm

And how about when you simulate pointing a rifle at a crow, with a stick or just your hands, it ALWAYS flies off in a hurry? Crows are SMART.

Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 1:36 pm

Many birds are incredibly ‘smart’. Parrots talk by mimicing sounds. Magpies use sticks as tools. If the aboriginals have seen it personally, I believe it true. JoNova’s original post also reported a fire warden who though he had a brush fire contained on one side of a road. Then had to put out 7 or eight small fires on the other side he personally witnessed started by these raptors by carrying and dropping burning twigs.

Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 3:42 pm

The birds have been parroting the line that it’s the wind blowing burning cinders owl along and gull-ible journalists fell for it. They’re no dodos, they don’t want the blame for this.

Tom Harley
Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 4:02 pm

Hi Rod, I have seen Black Kites pick smouldering sticks up in bushfires on field trips, dropping into nearby bush. they continuously swoop into the fire searching for prey that lose their cover, especially the many small lizards.
During the dry season, hundreds of them congregate around the rubbish tip and the town of Broome in Western Australia, but disappear at the first sign of smoke in the distance. Whistling Kites also do the same but in much smaller numbers.

Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 4:06 pm

If the aboriginals have seen it personally, I believe it true.

Most supposedly advanced people would quickly die if they were dumped into territory where supposedly primitive people survive with ease.

When someone who lives on the land tries to tell you something, the correct thing is to shut and listen.

On the other hand, when some city bred, university educated, aboriginal person tries to tell you romantic stories about what great environmentalists her ancestors were, you can safely ignore her. link

NW sage
Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 4:39 pm

The birds are at least as smart as the average climate scientist in OZ. If the bird(s) are hungry and they figure out that mice and rodents etc break cover because of the fire they are very likely to couple cause and effect. Find a smouldering stick where the fire has died down they can fly with, pick it up and drop it in a nice dry piece of tinder dry grass! Feeding the chicks is great positive feedback.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 4:45 pm

“When someone who lives on the land tries to tell you something, the correct thing is to shut and listen.”

Yeah, like when they danced to make it rain, or saw the future in entrails, or appeased the gods with human sacrifice.

Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 5:40 pm

JA, your comment shows you do not understand the difference between observation and belief. We were discussing aboriginal observations. You were discussing aboriginal beliefs. Quite the same divide as between skeptics and warmunists. Apt analogy. Thanks for (perhaps unintentionally) highlighting the difference.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 2:09 pm

Ian Magness – January 13, 2018 at 1:27 pm

As a lifelong birder, I seriously doubt that there is any credibility in this. …. The thought processes involved are just too complicated for bird brains.

“HA”, you need to spend the remainder of your lifetime observing and/or studying ….. the intelligence and abstract reasoning abilities in/of different bird species.

Ian Magness
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
January 14, 2018 1:29 am

Actually Samuel, I am more interested in spending time studying Earth sciences and indeed climate science. I like watching birds but not obsessively studying them. In neither case however, do I see any science that is settled and I reserve the right to change my mind on any issue as the emerging facts dictate. Mind you, you’d have to go some to convince me about the existence of AGW!

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Samuel C Cogar
January 14, 2018 6:05 am

Mind you, you’d have to go some to convince me about the existence of AGW!

Ian, I am pleased to know that you are not a believer in “junk science”.

Nick Stokes
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 3:46 pm

I’m dubious too. It’s published in an odd journal, J Ethnobiology, put out by Bio-one. I looked up their site, which seems full of worthy intentions, but I can’t see the normal structure of a scientific journal. Named editors, etc.

Greg Cavanagh
Reply to  Nick Stokes
January 13, 2018 4:05 pm

Which means that rather than look at the pictures in the linked articles, and here the eye witness accounts of the people who saw it, you would rather ‘appeal to authority’ of the paper publishing it to identify it’s validity.

Appeal to Authority as a judgment or correctness will lead you astray.

Nick Stokes
Reply to  Nick Stokes
January 13, 2018 4:20 pm

“the pictures in the linked articles”
There are pictures of birds. But as they say
“Photos and videos of firehawk behavior remain scarce, and it can be challenging to observe the birds while fires are blazing.”

Ben of Houston
Reply to  Nick Stokes
January 14, 2018 8:05 am

Nick’s right. I see no real reason to doubt the claims, but that’s what they are, unverifiable claims.Quite frankly, the only evidence that would suffice for such a specific behavior is video of it actually happening.

Greg Cavanagh
Reply to  Nick Stokes
January 14, 2018 1:32 pm

I agree a video would make the question go away. I refer to the eye witness accounts because it’s what the court uses in it’s assessment of guilt or innocence. It’s also true that not all witnesses are reliable, or even attempting to tell the truth.

The link goes to a scientific paper, and they interviewed many aboriginals. If while maintaining scepticism, you’ve got to say that more than one person has witnessed it (sufficient numbers that a paper was written on the subject).

I’ll also suggest that the Australian birds are smarter than your average pigeon.

Pat McAdoo
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 5:23 pm

Possibly collateral damage, Ian?

Maybe the birds were moving some prey and a few embers as well.

Paul Blase
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 9:05 pm
Komrade Kuma
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 13, 2018 10:24 pm


these are Australian birds. All sorts of things are a bit different here. The Brits just did not believe that platypus was for real at first, an egg laying mammal that swims and has a big, sharp barb on one back leg.

Surely that was a joke….bloody Awstralians at it again?

Maybe , maybe not….

Chris Wright
Reply to  Ian Magness
January 14, 2018 3:58 am

Birds are certainly surprisingly intelligent, and after millions of years ov evolution it’s conceivable that they have learned this method.

But I am still somewhat sceptical. It all seems to be based on hearsay. The authors state that videos and photos are “rare”. In fact it appears to be non-existent. If the authors had found actual video or photos showing this behaviour they would have surely published it.

Particularly bearing in mind the media’s over-hyping of natural events such as wildfires, I do find it surprising that there appears to be no video or photos showing birds spreading fires.

Reply to  Ian Magness
January 14, 2018 4:20 am

Thank you, Ian. So . . . how do these birds swoop in and grab/managed a burning stick? grass? bush? and fly any distance to start another fire without it going out or getting singed or becoming a crispy critter in the process? Have they learned how to strike a stolen match? Do they wait on high lines for backyard charcoalers to go into the house with the steaks, or in the darkness just beyond a campfire waiting for everyone to go to bed, so they can hop in an grab a hot coal? I think not. Also, have to question the intelligence assigned to these raptor’s beyond the wiring they were hatched with in that they seem unable to comprehend it’s fruitless to try and hunt around wind turbines. Can’t be done. Millions of feathered crosses in bird cemeteries. Haven’t read the paper. May try to get to it this year.

Reply to  Wrusssr
January 14, 2018 8:24 am

Crows where I live know how to open shells by picking them up and dropping them onto hard surfaces, doing the same with hot embers is not too different.

Reply to  Wrusssr
January 14, 2018 8:46 am

Sticks often start burning at one end and then the flame travels the length of the stick.
I’ve more than once stirred the embers of a fire by picking up one end of a burning stick in my hands and using that stick to push embers and other burning wood around.
Just because one end of a stick is burning doesn’t mean the whole stick is hot.

Reply to  Ian Magness
January 14, 2018 10:26 am

I’d have to disagree. My bird experience is specifically with raptors, and I’ve personally seen them demonstrate a great variety of intelligent problem solving skills

Gunga Din
January 13, 2018 1:29 pm

I guess we need more windmills to swat them out of the skies. /sarc

Ian Macdonald
Reply to  Gunga Din
January 14, 2018 2:03 am

Raptors seen intently watching building demolition crew at work. Some materials apparently went missing.

Birds now seem to be waiting for a forest fire…

January 13, 2018 1:31 pm

Still don’t see any definitive evidence, pictures, or video of such supposed high risk behavior. All I see in the articles is preditors taking advantage of various prey running away from approaching fire and exposing themselves. Just sayin…..

Tom Harley
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 4:05 pm

I have seen them do it on a few occasions when driving down roads with fires burning in the Kimberleys. They swoop into the fire in large numbers.

Extreme Hiatus
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 8:51 pm

Eric, there is no photographic evidence, and nor is there any likelihood of this happening. As a very serious birder for 50+ years I find this no more credible than Sasquatch stories and ostriches sticking their heads in the sand.

Do these hawks have oven mitts on their feet and inflammable feathers? How long after they allegedly drop their burning bits does the resulting fire make their prey exposed and vulnerable and what do they do in the meantime? And given that latter reality, why would a hawk engage in this dangerous behaviour if another hawk can just swoop in and take its alleged products? It is nonsensical.

Javert Chip
Reply to  ossqss
January 13, 2018 4:05 pm

Birds flying with burning embers would be quite a feat for their feet: birds in flight can’t see their feet (and the feet may even be tucked up close to their tail). Oxygenating burning embers has a somewhat predictable effect.

Put me down as highly skeptical (about a lot of things).

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 13, 2018 5:51 pm

A twig with a smoldering ember on one end is quite sufficient to start a grass fire. Raptor can grab it by the cold end. Are you familiar with old woodsman concept of tinder I learned then taught as an Eagle Scout? The physics is no different than high school chem lycopodium powder explosions. Heats up as a function of surface (absorbing heat) to mass (thermal inertia).so max surface and min mass. Lycopodium boom. Dry grass does that naturally, while a smoldering twig is the exact reverse. Bird perfect for these ‘smart’ Australian raptors.

Reply to  Javert Chip
January 14, 2018 11:50 am

Birds in flight carrying a load don’t tuck their feet up. Hawks in my area raid red-winged blackbird nests and other prey animal areas. If they get a “prize”, e.g., a nested fledgling, they take off with the bird in their claws, while the parent male redwing chases them. The hawk’s feet are NOT tucked up flat.

In regard to “stupid birds” and “not nearly that smart”, if they ARE stupid, as some of you so-called birders think they are, then how come in the early spring when northbound migration starts, I have had grackles, redwings, and cowbirds at my feeding station in masses for three years running, because it was too cold for bugs to be emerging?

Yes, I DO have pictures, and NO, they did not show up on the way south. And no, I did not put out special food for them, just the usual bird mix.

They’re a LOT smarter than you give them credit for.

Chris in Hervey Bay
Reply to  ossqss
January 14, 2018 1:37 am

Well, they didn’t believe the Platypus was real either. Australia is a strange place.. Visit sometime.

Michael 2
Reply to  ossqss
January 15, 2018 12:34 pm

“Just sayin…..”

Just writin….

January 13, 2018 1:35 pm

Do North American raptors engage in fire foraging, or do they tend to stay clear? Certainly it is a very interesting observation. Animals are naturally fearful of fire, it is quite a leap for a bird to go all the way to using fire as a tool. Most curious.

Gunga Din
Reply to  TonyL
January 13, 2018 1:48 pm

They just need to be trained to drop water balloons.

Alan D McIntire
Reply to  TonyL
January 13, 2018 4:16 pm

I don’t think they’re naturally afraid of FIRE; they’re afraid of PEOPLE who CONTROL fire. Our cat used to lie down right next to our fireplace when we had a fire burning- SHE certainly wasn’t afraid of fire.

Reply to  Alan D McIntire
January 13, 2018 4:42 pm

Cats will take their cues off their human hosts. If there is a nice bit of warmth and the humans are relaxed they won’t be startled. We once had a slightly disabled cat, odd walking gait and high pain threshold, who being told to get her tail out of an electric bar fire gave the haughty look, that only cats can do, with the expression of “There’s a problem?”. Fortunately no serious injury to cat. It remains a mystery to me how cats have so many expressions with a face full of fur.

Reply to  TonyL
January 13, 2018 5:28 pm

TonyL, I have a definitive personally observed answer. My Wisconsin dairy farm has barn and great horned owls, red tails hawks, ans (usually in winter) bald eagles fishing the never fully frozen (because of sand bars and currents) lower Wisonsin River plus any other opportunistic meal (think a winter killed white tail deer before the coyotes get to them). There is no fire foraging. Never was, even though the original prairie savannah landscape populated with burr oaks was surely summer fire forged. Burr oaks prove that. My farm raptor hunted game is different mice and rabbits, not lizards), and they have to learn how to hunt them in winter with often deep snow cover when there are NEVER prairie fires. Australia has large portions where it never snows in winter, so those raptors learn different hunting tricks.

January 13, 2018 1:48 pm

Are they targeting the green blight, specifically the windmill gauntlets?

The Original Mike M
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 11:13 pm

Birds don’t have any stereoscopic vision capacity to estimate distance of anything that isn’t directly ahead of them. As soon as they turn away from an airplane and look back it is with one eye and I suppose genetics doesn’t allow their bird brain to accept the possibility of something as big and fast as an airplane. What I’ve noticed seagulls do is rapidly turn their heads back and forth left and right a couple times looking back at me just before they panic, fold their wings and drop. I suspect that at that point they think there are two airplanes about to hit them not one.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 3:44 am

During a World Hang Gliding competition held at Mt Buffalo in the State of Victoria in Australia a few years back a German Hang Glider was attacked by a large Wedge -tailed Eagle causing him to crash land breaking an arm.
Clearly the eagle perceived the hang glider as an intruder in its domain and went in talons first on the attack

Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 14, 2018 8:51 am

When hunting, raptors look straight ahead, the tips of windmill blades come at them from the side.
Prey birds on the other hand are used to scanning the entire sky to look for danger.

January 13, 2018 1:53 pm

We will have to give up using that old phrase ‘Bird-Brain’, these creatures are way too clever for that.

January 13, 2018 2:18 pm

The behaviour seems more akin to immitation than tool making.

Tom Anderson
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 2:52 pm

In Lakeport, California, I used to watch the crows drop nuts from high up onto concrete to crack them. They didn’t crack as well on asphalt, and they knew to avoid that.

mike the morlock
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 4:01 pm

Eric, I have heard stories of seagulls dropping clams on the roads alone the beaches of Milford ct.
I don’t know where this is but it is one of several videos of the practice.

mike the morlock
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 4:02 pm



Alan Robertson
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 13, 2018 4:58 pm

I’ve watched gulls drop sea urchins onto the rocks to crack them open. They knew how high they had to fly to get a successful drop and they didn’t waste time making multiple attempts.

January 13, 2018 2:27 pm

Next thing you know they will be beating their wings to fan the flame. Stay tuned.

January 13, 2018 2:38 pm

Warning to tourists in Australia – pyrohawks are more dangerous than dropbears and hoopsnakes.

January 13, 2018 3:13 pm

If only humans were as sensible as most animals

Steve R
January 13, 2018 4:19 pm

I once had a dog that started a brushfire on 4th of July. She got it in her head to grab a lit roman candle in her mouth, and then ran off with it thru the dry scrub.

Reply to  Steve R
January 13, 2018 8:59 pm

You might like this story about the loaded dog

Jimmy Haigh
January 13, 2018 4:35 pm

That’s why they put up all the bird chopping eco-crucifixes/crucifi.

January 13, 2018 4:35 pm

Green herons are fly-fisherbirds, also reported to use bread and live mayflies to attract fish. Never saw that but almost got hit by a hard clam dropped by a large herring gull. They also do scallops.

Norris, D. 1975. Green heron (Butorides virescens) uses feather lure for fishing. American Birds. 29(1):652-654.

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
January 13, 2018 4:46 pm

I can’t wait for the first pictures of a raptor lighting up a cigarette with the carefully acquired fire stick.

Reply to  Moderately Cross of East Anglia
January 14, 2018 1:12 pm

What else is a sexually-satisfied raptor supposed to do??

January 13, 2018 5:01 pm

I have seen Crows do a lot of stuff, and deliberately bullying me for years and generations down the line. Just because I got into a quarrel with them making too much noise early in the morning, 40 years ago. I don’t doubt if they could save themselves from getting burnt, I will be the first to get burnt out when that opportunity arrives. God help me…

Reply to  Earthling2
January 13, 2018 7:58 pm

I ran all my crows off.

At times during a year a whole flock of crows would show up at my place, which is out in the woods surrounded by many trees, and they would take up residence in the trees right around my house, and you can imagine what kind of mess that creates with hundreds of crows sitting there, not to mention the noise they make.

So I would go outside when they showed up and I would get a wooden 2X4 and start banging on the side of a metal storage building I have, which sounded like a gunshot.

The crows would get spooked and fly around and then circle back and land in the same place. And then I would start banging on the shed again.

After spooking them a few times, they would finally fly off and land in trees about a half-mile away and leave me alone. Then the next year they would be back and we would go through it all again.

But eventually, after a couple of years of harrassment, the crows decided they didn’t want to land in my trees anymore, and moved their get together some distance away.

They still come around every year but they haven’t tried to land in the trees around my house for many years now. And I’m sure happy about that! 🙂

January 13, 2018 5:47 pm

I can confirm birds of prey using fires to soar on the updraft and kill flushed game and even walking around in smoldering areas. Never saw one grab a flaming branch and use it to start a fire though.

January 13, 2018 5:48 pm

There are other examples of animals finding novel ways to get food. For example, crows in Japan using cars to crack nuts (; and I recall an instance where one bird in Britain had learnt to grab pieces of bread and use them to lure fish. And, of course, from time immemorial humans have been using fire to flush game. Some people, for their own reasons, claim this is for environmental management, but current examples of the practice seem to point to it being simply a convenient way to flush game.

Reply to  BCS (@PumpysDad)
January 13, 2018 6:25 pm

I think they would have been smart enough 50K years ago to understand fuel loading and fire management. Plus grows more fresh plants in burnt areas as well as attracts more game when new succulent growth starts growing. And they probably didn’t want to get burnt out at peak fire season either. I would bet most of our ancient family, and Neanderthal, were much, much smarter and in tune with nature than we would give them credit for now. I sometimes wonder what they thought when they saw the Moon 🌙 in different phase and the resulting tides that ensued. Throw in a little fermented drink 🍹, and a bit of herb 🌿, and I bet they were real party animals. This probably had a lot to do with development of the brain that we have today. IMHO of course. I am only expert in the fermented drink…

January 13, 2018 6:25 pm

I’ve seen close up a magpie mock a cat, following about 3 feet behind it. While night riding in the hills on a motorbike an owl flew overhead, apparently expecting me to spook up rodents. But all my life I’ve heard stories about people seeing flying saucers, and have yet to see a good picture.

The word of a hundred aborigines means no more than that of UFO observers. Let’s at least analyze the behavior:
1) The birds know that fires flush out prey (highly probable).
2) The birds at some point in natural history picked up burning sticks (who knows?).
3) Some of these burning sticks were observed to ignite new fires (somewhat less likely).
4) This happened often enough for birds to intelligently deduce that they could spread fire intentionally, increasing available prey.
5) Either these phenomena were frequent enough to evolve instinctive behavior, or they were passed culturally between generations as learned behavior.

This is nuts. –AGF

Reply to  agfosterjr
January 13, 2018 6:47 pm

AGF, I cannot resist a reply at two different levels.
First, Lamarckian evolution was thoroughly repudiated by Darwin and the discovery of DNA—except afterwards shown clearly exists in social learned behavior (chimp group tools) and in epigenetics post DNA discovery (think genome refolding and gene methylation). So at both of your hypothesized but doubted causes.
Second, has been observed. So even if we do not yet correctly understand why and how, it still exists observationally. Thus is scientific knowledge advanced. Kuhns classic history of science book on scientific paradigms serves as sufficient explanation. See also many examples in my ebook The Arts of Truth.

Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 7:59 pm

Lamarckian? You lost me, unless you are you agreeing that this is probably not evolved behavior–learned if anything?

Reply to  ristvan
January 13, 2018 10:40 pm


In his analysis (on instinct vs learning), agfosterjr didn’t invoke Lamarckian evolution.

And Darwin never did “repudiate it.”

In fact, Darwin embraced the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarkian evolution) as one of several causes of variations:

“With animals the increased use or disuse of parts has had a more marked influence. Thus I find in the domestic duck that the bones of the wing weigh less and the bones of the leg more, in proportion to the whole skeleton, the same bones in the wild duck; and this change may be safely attributed to the domestic duck flying much less, and walking more, than it’s wild parents.”

-Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, chapter 1 section II, “Effect of Habit and of the Use and Disuse of Parts; Correlated Variation; Inheritance

Maybe you should actually read his book instead of pretending you did.

Reply to  ristvan
January 14, 2018 9:04 am

I’ve read that bones that are put under stress become stronger and heavier.

Michael 2
Reply to  agfosterjr
January 15, 2018 12:52 pm

“This is nuts. –AGF”

Perhaps you mistake that someone is trying to convince you of this.

January 13, 2018 7:45 pm

It just goes to show, literally ANYTHING may be trying to kill you somehow in Oz!

Warren Blair
January 13, 2018 7:51 pm

Bird grabs lizard and inadvertently a longish smouldering stick.
Bird releases lizard and inadvertently the smouldering stick in nearby scrub.
Scrub soon catches fire.
Bird takes note.

Reply to  Warren Blair
January 13, 2018 8:01 pm

Bird assumes correlation is causation. Smart bird! –AGF

Warren Blair
January 13, 2018 8:04 pm

Bird grabs lizard joined to burning stick.
Bird drops lizard because it’s hot.
Scrub below catches fire.
More lizards appear from cover.
Bird feasts big.
Bird takes note.

January 13, 2018 8:05 pm

My sister told me today that she saw a news clip where they showed a yellow school driving down the road with a rooster running just as fast as it could behind the bus, and when the bus stopped, a little girl got off the bus, and the rooster jumped into her arms. It was her pet.

The bird knew she was on the bus.

Warren Blair
Reply to  TA
January 13, 2018 8:25 pm

I believe that news clip.
Roosters are cunning if nothing else.
Kept several as pets when young.
Interesting study here:

Extreme Hiatus
January 13, 2018 8:39 pm

“raptors have been photographed congregating on the edge of large Australian bushfires, picking up burning sticks, and deliberately setting new spot fires in advance of the main blaze to flush out small mammals and other prey.”

No they haven’t. No photos or videos of this happening.

“This discovery potentially has profound implications for fire management in places like California.”

No it doesn’t. Even if it were true different raptors species do different things.

As a birder for 50+ years I don’t find this story even remotely credible, and won’t until I see actual photographic evidence. Not just one isolated iffy image but clear and repeated use of this method – because that is what is implied. I am confident I will never see that evidence outside of digital fakery.

Other have noted how intelligent some birds can be. True. They are also intelligent enough to NOT burn their feet or risk burning their feathers for some questionable gain.

So I call this whole story BS.

Michael 2
Reply to  Extreme Hiatus
January 15, 2018 12:54 pm

Extreme Hiatus writes “I don’t find this story even remotely credible, and won’t until I see actual photographic evidence.”

Perhaps you mistake this report as an attempt to convince you. As it happens, I believe these reports, partly because I have seen many birds do amazing things, and partly because there is no harm in believing it.

What is the risk factor to you? Why the resistance?

Mike Wryley
January 13, 2018 9:05 pm

I have seen our bigger hens or rooster wait for the barn cat to catch a mouse and take it away from him if the cat isn’t careful. Free range chickens socially complex and interesting to watch.

Extreme Hiatus
January 13, 2018 10:18 pm

Note the photos of the Black Kite. Note how far down its legs its feathers go. Setting aside the problem of its feet being burned, does that look like a bird adapted to carry a burning object without burning its feathers?

Michael 2
Reply to  Extreme Hiatus
January 15, 2018 12:57 pm

“does that look like a bird adapted to carry a burning object without burning its feathers?”

I must admit to not having spent a lot of time trying to guess what a bird would look like optimized for certain behaviors, and then deciding a-priori whether the bird does, or does not, engage in any particular behavior based on my own decision.

January 14, 2018 12:20 am

OK, my two cents and a tangent.
About twenty odd years ago I heard a bird singing its heart out on my deck. I scooped up a handful of bird seed and went outside. I held out my hand containing the seed; a large male GST (Grey Shrike Thrush) flew down, landed on my hand, and ate the seed.
Twice a day for about two weeks, he would land on my kitchen window ledge, tap on the glass, and eat from my hand when I came out.
He did this twice a year as he migrated, for about ten years.
Then he stopped coming.
About three years after his last visit, I heard the tapping on my kitchen window.
I went outside with the birdseed, and a young female GST flew over, landed on my hand and ate the seed.
She did this for about two weeks, twice a year for about three years. She stopped coming about four years ago.
As we speak, I can hear a GST in my back yard, singing away. He has been here about a week, but has not yet come to my deck or tapped on my window.
I live in hope and anticipation.

Reply to  William
January 14, 2018 8:02 pm

Great story, William.

Joel O’Bryan
January 14, 2018 3:39 am

bbq kookaburra. yum.

January 14, 2018 3:54 am

Rubbish…. Show video, or it never happened. Photoshopped videos don’t count either.

I’m pretty sure that they’ve had their leg pulled.

Sandy In Limousin
January 14, 2018 4:11 am

There is one human casualty from birds using tools, Aeschylus. Valerius Maximus wrote that he was killed outside the city by a tortoise dropped by an eagle which had mistaken his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering the shell of the reptile.

The bearded vulture (aka Lammergeyer) drops bones on rocks to crack them open, and is the suggested guilty party. In the days when milk was delivered in the early morning in aluminium foil topped bottles Blue Tits learnt that they could get at the cream by pecking a hole in the top.

This 1985 BBC programme makes fascinating viewing

So I’m sure that this reported behaviour may well be true.

January 14, 2018 9:34 am

It’s not unusual behavior native Americans also practiced controlled burns to flush game.

January 14, 2018 9:35 am

Can I put up a defense for raptors here. I used to go out intoo the countryside wityh a person who kept and hunted with birds. One particular Harris Hawk was so clever I watched hime catching a rabbit by flying over a hedge into another field then fly upto the perfect point to come back over and get the rabbit it one strike. Very impressive and very intelligent.

January 14, 2018 10:59 am

Are these the birds that Sam Neill was so casual about their leaving the island in Jurassic Park 3?

January 14, 2018 12:18 pm

Crows have extraordinary memories and a unique language. They can remember someone passing through their area after one sighting, and tell each other if the same person is returning. They know and identify neighborhood cats by sight.

When I put out bird food in the winter for birds that stay in my area, I use the plain generic mix that Ace hardware sells for about $9/bag. No special menus, just that stuff.

Yes, I get plenty of birds. This winter it’s mostly the mourning doves. I’ll got plenty of sparrows and juncos when the weather started turning cold, and squirrels, of course.

However, in the spring three years ago, common field birds like grackles, redwinged blackbirds and cowbirds showed up at my feeding station in large numbers for no reason at all other than the snows had continued into normal migration time, the temps were too cold for bugs to start emerging, and the ground worms and grains that they are usually dependent on for early food sources were not available. I don’t put out signs or advertise in the “Bird Flyway News”, so how would these normally NON-CITY LOCATED birds fidn their way to my feeding station if the other birds didn’t communicate the information to them?: They still show up, and will most likely show up again, come spring and migration, because the weather promises to be crappy and offer foodless locations when they return.

And yes, I have plenty of pictures, including 22 pairs of mated brownheaded cowbirds stuffing themselves on my front steps. I also have a fine photo of one redwing who kept showing up at my place in July, looking at me for a handout. I have photos of goldfinch pairs assaulting my sunflowers last summer, which is the ONLY year I’ve grown sunflowers in my yard.

When some “birder for 30-40-50′ years says he’s never heard of such a thing as birds being smart, it shows a lack of real observation. It means you only go look at them through binocs and then you go home.

Extreme Hiatus
Reply to  Sara
January 14, 2018 8:38 pm

Sara – If you are referring to my comments, you missed my point. Birds, some families more than others, are highly intelligent. That is one of the main reasons I find this particular story implausible. They are all intelligent enough to not put their lives at risk for some dubious potential gain.

Think it through. Let’s say a hawk manages to pick up a burning stick, holding an unburned part so it doesn’t burn its feet. Then it carries it away carefully enough not to burn its wings or other feathers when it is flying. If it makes a mistake in this just once, that could be a fatal mistake.

But let’s say it does this successfully. Then it drops that stick. Then what? It will take time for that fire to have the desired effect: to create an open area where panicked rodents or lizards are easy to catch. What does that bird do in the meantime? Hovering over it for a long time takes too much energy so there needs to be a perch nearby. Then, when enough area is burned, one or more other hawks – which are attracted to burned or burning areas, as is the whole basis of this story – could arrive and the bird which took all those risks could end up with nothing.

That does not make any evolutionary survival sense for hawks. They are not altruistic food-sharing communists. And even if they were, their arriving competition could be another species altogether which would make it even more pointless.

Also consider my final comment above. Does a bird with feathers on its legs like that look like one adapted to carry burning sticks? No.

Lastly, about going birding then going home… I have well over 200 species on our home property list so the birding and the close observations never end.

Extreme Hiatus
Reply to  Extreme Hiatus
January 14, 2018 8:57 pm

Should add that, while waiting for the fire to start and spread sufficiently they could also just circle around on the thermals which would be more energy efficient. But that would also attract their competition.

January 14, 2018 1:07 pm

I knew a guy once who worked on a nut orchard near the South Australia/Victoria border and they had a crow problem. So Mick said to his boss “why don’t I try to scare them off with my ultralight?”. Boss agreed and Mick would pretend to strafe the orchard but it took the crows only a couple of days to decide that the aircraft was harmless. So Mick took a shotgun and fired it at low level over the orchard but again the crows figured it was no problem after initially flying off. So Mick changed tactics and decided he would target one particular crow when the flock took off and make sure he shot it. This actually worked as the crows figured out quickly that one of us was going to die every time they heard the ultralight start up. Mick said he once had to chase one to 4000 feet to get him (ultralight had open cockpit with pusher prop with shotgun mounted in front of pilot). The crows left the orchard.
Unfortunately there were two orchards and the crows went to the neighbor’s orchard. That idiot, instead of getting Mick to chase the crows away from his orchard too, called the Australian aviation regulator who arrived one morning to bust Mick. Mounting guns on aircraft and firing them is only allowed to be done by the Air Force in Australia (Australia is a totalitarian thuggocracy when it comes to aviation and guns – if you like both, don’t bother to come here). The smart thing would have been to give Mick guidance and permission to protect agriculture in this way. Fortunately the regulator is also incompetent and forgot to file charges in time. Mick is now a Flying Doctor pilot.
I guess crows are smarter than some people.

January 14, 2018 4:02 pm

If you are interested in this, you should read the original news item — it is about a study in which “Scientists recently collected and evaluated reports from Aboriginal and nonindigenous people of these so-called firehawks ” They relate stories and anecdotes that go back to the 1960’s — there are no actual verifiable or confirmed instances known.

It may be simply be an aboriginal urban legend — being reported as “science” in reference to “Indigenous Ecological Knowledge”

Greg Cavanagh
Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 14, 2018 6:39 pm

I would read it another way.

The aborigines spend time in the wilderness doing their indigenous thing and observing nature around them.
The scientist interviewed the aborigines but didn’t do any field work.

Thus: “there are no actual verifiable or confirmed instances (witnessed by the scientists)”. Clearly the aborigines (and others) say they did witness such things.

Reply to  Greg Cavanagh
January 15, 2018 7:08 am

Greg Cavanagh ==> Free living humans make the worst possible “eye-witnesses” — this is true in forensics and is true in nature studies, particularly in “Indigenous Ecological Knowledge” where the knowledge is related to myth. If you have been taught [by] your grandfather that “firehawks” swoop down at the edge of wildfires to catch up burning grass or twigs and spread the fire, then when you see a hawk swoop down to catch up a rodent running before the fire, catch a rodent or maybe a bit of burning grass instead or as well in the same talon-full, then dropping the burning material once realized, or settling down with its meal of rodent with a bit of smouldering grass, you will see what your grandfather described — not the reality. That is how human minds work – they see what they expect to see.
Scientists, however, are supposed to be disinterested, careful, observers to avoid polluting their observation with cultural prejudice.
There may be enough interesting anecdotal material to warrant some biologist getting out to interview firefighters in Australia on the subject or send out students with video cameras to see if such behavior can be captured on film. But I wouldn’t advise any doctoral biology students to pick this as a dissertation topic — unless one has a very forgiving institution that will accept “no such thing witnessed in three years of research”.
There is always something to be gained from ancient “knowledge” — but it must be carefully sifted to find the parts that match actuality — the real parts. Some “ancient” remedies have been found to have value — willow bark (which contains the equivalent of “aspirin”), other bark with quinine, etc. But hundreds of remedies are found worthless or harmful for every one that is found beneficial.

Michael 2
Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 15, 2018 1:03 pm

“It may be simply be an aboriginal urban legend”

Yup. It is interesting to see people takes sides on this non-issue.

January 15, 2018 1:44 am

Just as well we are wiping out these arsonists with windmills.

January 15, 2018 7:13 am

Speaking of urban legends and fake video, how about them peregrine falcons diving at 240mph (107m/sec)? There’s no end to the gullibility of National Geographic, the Smithsonian, Nature, BBC, etc. –AGF

Reply to  agfosterjr
January 15, 2018 7:36 am

According to Air & Space Magazine a peregrine falcon has been clocked at up to 242 mph, why don’t you believe them?

Reply to  Phil.
January 15, 2018 7:40 am

Why should I believe one more parroting of an urban legend (over 100 years old)? Show me these data that stretch the rules of aerodynamics (Vance Tucker notwithstanding). –AGF

Reply to  Phil.
January 15, 2018 8:23 am

It’s not parroting of an urban legend as I said it has been ‘clocked’, i.e. measured, in 1999 in one case.
Why do you think it ‘stretched the rules of aerodynamics’, perhaps you think that dimples on golfballs have no effect?

January 15, 2018 8:51 am

I showed Franklin was a fraudster years ago: his special effects man had a heyday with the raw footage (unavailable, of course). Nobody has even made an attempt to compare stoop speeds by species, subspecies, gender, weight, wing position, kill strategy, collision speed, etc. Allerstam came the closest, but he blows his credibility when he claims 110mph at a shallow angle (video+radar, wings out). Sorry, duck hawk science is no better than climate science. –AGF

Reply to  agfosterjr
January 15, 2018 9:37 am
Reply to  Phil.
January 15, 2018 10:57 am

Most of the readers here are acquainted with the shortcomings of models (like Tucker’s) as opposed to measured reality. From Tucker:

“Estimates of their top speed in a dive range up to 157 m/s, although speeds this high have never been accurately measured.”

157 m/sec = 351mph!

“They would encounter both advantages and disadvantages by diving at the top speeds of ideal falcons, and whether they achieve those speeds remains to be investigated.”

20 years later this is still true.

To his credit Tucker took wind tunnel measurements of both a frozen falcon and another with wings removed, and in both cases got a terminal speed of 70mph–a far cry from 351mph or his “ideal” falcon. Except for the case noted above Allerstam never gunned a bird at over 90mph, plus or minus, somewhat in the realm of reason.

One would think that with the miniaturization of GPS the truth would come out. I suspect it has, and nobody likes it.

And if we want to talk theory, we might consider the usefulness of such a phenomenal speed, how it evolved, when it is of any use, how fast is the gyrfalcon, why is there such a prowess imbalance between predator and prey, and so on. Typically the predator is just a wee bit faster than the least able prey. If this were not the case population balance would fluctuate dangerously.

Nobody seems to know how to ask the right questions, let alone answer them.

For the record, DNA analysis has indicated falcons are related to parrots rather than hawks, potentially throwing the taxonomy and nomenclature into a quandary. –AGF

Reply to  Phil.
January 15, 2018 12:26 pm

One advantage of having extra speed:

Stan Sexton
January 15, 2018 10:27 am

Here in the states, the U.S.Forest Service has had conferences on Pyroterrorism, or terrorists starting fires.

January 15, 2018 11:56 am

I took a year off work in 1990 and travelled around Australia in a 4WD and a caravan. We saw this happening in the Northern Territory around the edges of a bush fire.

It is fascinating to watch and we watched the Kites (birds) doing it for about 30 mins. I assumed it was well known behaviour. Certainly, the National Parks guy I spoke to said he had seen it many times.

Reply to  Ardy
January 15, 2018 12:50 pm

1) The more common the phenomenon the more easily it is documented. Why can’t anyone show us any video?

2) Is the claim peculiar to Australia? I’ve never heard it in these parts, where fires are pretty common (Mountain West , U.S.).

3) So firebreaks don’t work in Australia; the birds are too smart.

4) They are not satisfied with the speed of the fire line. Too many birds, not enough mice. This fire is too small.

5) They can increase their chances of catching lunch by abandoning the big fire and starting a little one.

6) If they succeed in lighting a new fire, the two may soon merge. Do they start new fires selfishly or altruistically?

7) Do some have marital problems and choose to burn the nest instead?

8) If they are such experts in starting fires, why don’t they just pool their resources and maintain a permanent camp fire?

9) Maybe Josh could draw a cartoon of birds sitting around the fire, telling old forest ranger tales.


January 15, 2018 12:31 pm

This sounds like BS to me.

Anyone who posts an article like this,
without an honest video or at least some pictures
of it happening, is a BSer.

The comments were interesting, however.

Michael 2
Reply to  Richard Greene
January 16, 2018 5:06 pm

Richard Greene writes “It matters because this website is dedicated to real climate science and finding and exposing junk climate science”.

It does that fairly often but isn’t exclusive. I very much enjoy the occasional W.E. sailing adventure.

“This boid article is off topic and I think it’s BS.”

Of course it’s BS and from time to time a BS story is posted here so we can see what the world is saying without having to go to all these places and give them clicks.

The story is also useful to remember that sea level rise after the last glacial period was HUGE compared to the 1 meter anticipated rise.

“We skeptics don’t like to be fooled.”

There is no “we” skeptics! Skeptics are like libertarians; I’m skeptical of you, and you are skeptical of me. I like being fooled if it is a really good joke, something like a puzzle.

“it has taken bandwidth away that could have been used for a climate science article.”

Plenty of bandwidth and space exists on the world’s disk drives and more can be made.

“from some poor struggling climate writer who got bumped for bird fiction.”

I happen to like bird fiction. In fact, in that day’s postings it was what I first reviewed. Perhaps the moderator can chime in whether anyone was “bumped” for this.

“And you have annoyed me too Michael 2 so tell me where you live and I’m coming over there to get you”

Chuckle out loud. One of the small benefits of having an extremely common name (and a proxy).

“No American birds are starting fires.”

Not intentionally anyway. I wonder what happens to the flaming birds that crash in the desert at the Ivanpah solar thermal facility.

Michael 2
January 15, 2018 1:07 pm

Richard Greene writes “This sounds like BS to me” and “The comments were interesting, however.”

Indeed they are interesting, particularly the people proclaiming their disbelief. Why does it matter?

Reply to  Michael 2
January 15, 2018 2:11 pm

It matters because this website is dedicated
to real climate science and
finding and exposing junk climate “science”.

This boid article is off topic and I think it’s BS.

We skeptics don’t like to be fooled.

If so it has taken bandwidth away
that could have been used
for a climate science article.
from some poor struggling climate writer
who got bumped for bird fiction.

Something is wrong with the article / author
if the comments are much better than it was.

And you have annoyed me too Michael 2
so tell me where you live and I’m coming
over there to get you — just give me a few
moments to catch my breath before
the rumble starts.

Here’s how I feel about boids:
— I feed the ones near my house with three
nyjer seed feeders and a heated bird bath.
I hate to see birds in cages or any other animals.
No American birds are starting fires.
And the Australian birds are not smart enough!

Reply to  Richard Greene
January 15, 2018 2:46 pm

Richard Greene January 15, 2018 at 2:11 pm
It matters because this website is dedicated
to real climate science and
finding and exposing junk climate “science”.

Not according to the host:

About Watts Up With That? News and commentary on puzzling things in life, nature, science, weather, climate change, technology, and recent news by Anthony Watts

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