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Intentional fire-spreading by “firehawk” raptors in Northern Australia

Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, 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.


Journal of Ethnobiology, Vol. 37, No. 4. (1 December 2017), pp. 700-718, https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700 
Key: INRMM:14517018

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