Firehawks of the Top End

Firehawks of the Top End

28 June 2011

published by

Australia — I’ve been fascinated by the relationships between birds and fire since I moved to the Top End of the Northern Territory almost thirty years ago. Right now we are in a hiatus between the early dry season “cool” fires and the “hot” – and vastly more destructive – fire storms of the late dry season and early wet.


Waiting for a roast dinner…two Black Kites and a Torresian Crow. Borroloola, May 2011.

A few weeks ago I was down in the Gulf-country town of Borroloola, nestled in some of the most beautiful country of the Top End. One afternoon I saw a slow-burning grass-fire – remember this was early in the dry and there was, particularly following the record past wet-season not long gone – just south of the Rodeo grounds on the edge of town. I went back early in the evening and wandered around the freshly burnt-to-black grounds across to the fire-front.

Away to my left hundreds of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus banksii erupted from the ground before me. At the base of the fire adventurous Torresian Crows Corvus orru, Black Kites Milvus migrans and Whistling Kites Haliastur sphenurus fluttered on fire-fueled updrafts, slipping and falling in and out of the flames.

There are rich pickings around a fire ground, particularly when the densely-grassed annual grasslands burn off. Snakes, Lizards and small ground birds caught at the fire front are burnt to crisp black morsels for the raptors, while the seed eating Cockatoos plunder the corms, insects and seeds that lie snap-cooked on the ashen ground.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus banksii. Borroloola, 2011

Hordes of Kites and Crows flocked to these fires – roosting in trees to wait their turns to plunder the fruits of the fire. The odd Brown Falcon Falco berigora sweeps through looking for a cheap and easy feed.

One aspect of bird behaviour that has long fascinated me turned up in a reference I came across many years ago from a book by the esteemed Australian journalist and author Douglas Lockwood. He shared authorship of perhaps his most famous book – I, the Aboriginal*, with a man named Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts).

An Alawa language group man from the Roper River country in the Northern territory’s south-east, Waipuldanya relates this fine-grained observation of unique bird behaviour:

“I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles. When that area was burnt out the process was repeated elsewhere. We call these fires Jarulan“

I first came across this report from a reference in an article titled “A Remarkable Case of Tool-Using in a Bird” by the American academic Ashley Montague**, who says:

To the growing list of tool-users among animals other than man should be added the Northern Territory kitehawk [Black Kite, Milvus migrans] or, as he is called among the Australian Aborigines, the firehawk.


Is this, possibly, the first recorded case of the use of fire by a nonhuman animal?”

A Black Kite hovers in the flames.

A good question that I cannot answer. So I tried that last resort of the desperate researcher and posted a few notes on some birding and ethnography web-groups from around the world. I must say that i was somewhat underwhelmed by the response…not that it was an entirely wasted exercise.

On my own bookshelves I came across the modest but very informative booklet “Malakmalak and Matngala Plants and Animals – Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge from the Daly River area, Northern Australia***” published about 10 years ago where at page 78 I found the following intriguing note:

“Black Kite, Chicken Hawk (Kerrk – Malamalak, Num – Matngala). Milvus migrans. Often seen flying around near fires hunting for insects and small lizards escaping the fire. The name refers to its distinctive call “kerrk-kerrk-kerrk“. In the creation period or dreamtime, Kerrk stole fire sticks from the Dingo, so that he could cook the Ckeeky yam. Kerrk is still attracted to fires and occasionally he can be seen carrying burning sticks from an existing fire to start more fires further away.”

My Mississippi Deltan colleague Mark Bonta – highly regarded for his wonderful account of central-American ethnoornithology, Seven Names for the Bellbird: conservation geography in Honduras,**** had the following thoughts about:

…the problems and issues with Western science not believing (in) Traditional Ecological Knowledge — accounts of kites starting fires are found in Africa and in the Americas as well, and I found a reference to a belief, I think it was in New Guinea (would have to check my notes) that humans learned how to use fire from watching kites. For ethno-ornithologists, the rather paternalistic “it isn’t true unless and until Western scientists confirm it” is a real can of worms, needless to say — but in the case of an avian behavior pattern this highly significant, multiple independent confirmations would certainly help. This could be a great collaborative TEK research venture that would, if persuasive data were presented, not fail to have a major effect on the scholarship of those of us who study the pervasive influence of fire on landscape.

I like what the heat from the fire does to the air…and just maybe so do the birds…

So it isn’t just about the birds. What Mark – and more than a few of us around the world – are interested in looking at is the relationships between birds, fire and humans and the rest of the world we live in. Mark later elaborated on these thoughts in his abstract for a conference paper – perhaps not yet delivered.

Large-scale landscape modification and the role of the ‘firebird’: folklore or fact?

Use of fire as a tool is normally considered to be restricted to humans, and hence to have played an extremely important role not only in human societal change but also in the large-scale modification of landscapes across the world. Supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence, authors such as Stephen Pyne have argued for predominantly anthropogenic origins of savannas, pyrophytic forests (Quercus and Pinus, for example), and many other supposedly ‘natural’ ecosystems, which in the absence of human-caused fires revert to quasi- or non-pyrophytic landscapes (climax communities such as mixed forests, for example).

Following this logic, fire caused by lightning strikes (and to a much lesser extent, volcanic ejecta) would have been far less important in landscape modification over large parts of the world. But what if animals other than humans exhibit pyrophilic behavior?

This article examines the elusive evidence for intentional fire-starting by kites of the genera Milvus and Elanus, primarily in Australia but also in Africa and North America. Milvus kites in Australia are frequently seen hunting along the edges of wildfires, attracted to fleeing prey.

This behavior (also noted in other regions) has earned them the local epithet ‘firebird’ [or similar names]. However, local people also commonly take for granted that kites pick up burning embers on purpose in order to spread fire. This purported use of fire as a tool for landscape modification has been commented upon by Western naturalists and even accepted within the secondary literature, but it remains unclear whether such behavior has ever been independently corroborated.

As Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the data are convincing, but given the significance of such behavior to the biological and earth sciences, proof is still needed for acceptance within Western scientific epistemology.

This article concludes by speculating on the importance of this line of investigation. On one hand, “ornithogenic” landscape modification by fire would necessitate a re-evaluation of our knowledge of historic landscape processes. On the other hand, as an Australian (New Guinean?) ‘myth’ states, it opens the possibility of fire manipulation by humans as a behavior learned from kites (comparable to weaving learned from spiders, flight based on birds, etc.)

As you can see there is a lot more that we might be able to learn about these things.

Fire in the north of Australia is just as powerful a force of nature as the 3 metres of rainfall we had here this past wet season, the glorious cool dry season weather we are having right now and all the drama of a rampaging wet season with it’s cyclones and the assault of the human senses that is a tropical thunderstorm.

If you want to learn a bot more about fire in this part of the world I can think of no better place than the excellent North Australian Fire Information site, from where this map comes from.

Fires in the Top End – frequency, duration and seasonality. Source: NAFI

If you have a story about birds and fire I’d love to hear it – take the few seconds to register – once only – and join the conversation with your thoughts.

* Douglas Lockwood. I, the Aboriginal. Readers Book Club in association with the Companion Book Club, London. (1964) (with Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts)

** Ashley Montague (1970) A Remarkable Case of Tool-Using in a Bird. American Anthropologist 72: 610.

*** Biddy Yingguny Lindsay and Waliwararra, K., Miljat, F., Kuwarda, H., Pirak, R., Muyung, A., Pambany, E., Marruridji, J., Marrfurra, P. & Wightman, G. Malakmalak and Matngala Plants and Animals – Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge from the Daly River area, Northern Australia. (2001) NT Botanical Bulletin No. 26. Parks & Wildlife Commission of the NT. (ISSN: 0314-1810)

**** Mark Bonta (2003). Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.


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