Fire Hawks

Hawks circle a bushfire in Australia as they hunt for escaping prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2021

Fire is a way of life in Australia where bushfires rage during the dry season and humans set controlled burns during the rest of the year. Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines, use fire as a tool on the landscape to “facilitate hunting, change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, reduce [wildfire] hazards, and increase biodiversity.”

Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Every living thing on the continent has adapted to fire including three species of raptors in northern Australia that hover over active firefronts to capture prey escaping from the flames (at top). Sometimes the prey hides too effectively so the firehawks carry burning sticks to set new fires and flush the prey.

The hawks’ behavior, unique to Australia, was reported in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia which said:

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.

— Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718.

The behavior is so uncommon that seeing it is often a once in a lifetime experience. The observer must be in front of the fireline, watching the controlled burn (as shown below) as a hawk picks up a burning stick. Needless to say there are no photos of the behavior yet, but there are many eyewitnesses especially among the Aborigines who have tended fires for thousands of years.

Controlled burn of grasslands in Australia (photo by MomentsForZen via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Who was the firehawk that tried it first among the three species?

The black kite (Milvus migrans),

Black kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) whose whistle sounds like this … and…

Whistling kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the brown falcon (Falco berigora).

The firehawks add a complication to fire management in northern Australia. Read more in Australian “firehawk” raptors intentionally spread fires at Nature.org.

p.s. I note with pleasure that the principal author of the study is Mark Bonta, son of Marcia & Bruce Bonta of Plummer’s Hollow, PA. Marcia Bonta is a great nature writer who wrote for the PA Game News for 28 years and retired this month. Her Farewell on 1 Dec 2021 is here.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology; click on the captions to see the originals)

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