Is This Bird an Arsonist?


The indigenous peoples of northern Australia have long told tales about raptors intentionally starting fires in order to lure their prey into the open. Now, a scientific study has documented these “firehawks.” (International Business Times)

It’s the Year of the Bird, and that apparently includes fire-starting raptors.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Avian arsonist? WHO, ME?
Photograph of a black kite by J.M. Garg, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Discussion Ideas

  • A terrific new study documents legendary “firehawks” and other raptors. What are raptors?




  • How does the new study help document the “firehawk” behavior?
    • According to the International Business Times, “observers reported that the birds – working alone and jointly – help to spread naturally occurring wildfires which are commonplace in the arid landscape. They do this by picking up burning material and dropping it onto virgin patches of grassland. According to the eyewitness accounts, the birds then wait nearby until they can see small animals trying to escape the flames, at which point they swoop in to make their kill.”


  • How might this behavior help inform firefighting strategy in Northern Australia?
    • More widespread knowledge of this behavior might help explain how bush fires spread from one area to another. Knowing raptors’ species range might help firefighters anticipate where a fire may spread.


  • Does this research have implications outside Australia?
    • Yes. Similar hunting methods have been reported by indigenous peoples of Africa and North America. Scientists may want to consult those with Indigenous Ecological Knowledge to help document these reports, being careful to avoid “the rather paternalistic ‘it isn’t true unless and until Western scientists confirm it’” approach.
    • Avian use of fire as a tool for landscape modification might help inform global studies in:
      • anthropology. Could early humans have learned to manipulate fire from birds?
      • geomorphology. Could birds contribute to creating or manipulating an entire landscape or ecosystem?
      • infrastructure. How might knowing a raptor’s species range influence firefighting strategy?



International Business Times: The only animal that can control fire witnessed in Australia

Nat Geo: Australia 1-page map

Crikey: Birds of the week – Firehawks of the Top End

Central Land Council: Indigenous Ecological Knowledge

(extra credit, behind a paywall) Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia

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