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Study of Australian Birds Shows They Help Fires Spread

Brown Falcon sitting on a tree in Australia: ID 46401241 © Tinamou | Dreamstime.com

[Originally published Jan. 15, 2018 as Birds Seem to Intentionally Spread Fires!]

Birds are incredibly intelligent animals. They work through certain probability problems better than some students, they communicate with people in order to hunt, they build structures with perspective in mind, they can figure out other birds’ desires, and they use and modify tools. Well, now we have one more thing to add to the list. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, at least three species of bird (Black Kites, Whistling Kites, and Brown Falcons [shown above]) also use fire!

It has been known for some time that certain birds of prey tend to congregate near wildfires. Most animals flee from fire, and that’s why the birds are there. After all, the fire is essentially flushing small animals out of the underbrush, making them easy prey for the birds. Now it’s not all that surprising for birds to notice the abundance of easy prey near a fire and eventually figure out that there is an association between fire and prey. However, the authors of this study confirmed something that Aboriginal Australians had known for quite some time – birds actually spread the fires to get even more prey!

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This “fire spreading” has been depicted in sacred rituals of the Aboriginal Australians, but many non-Aboriginals have expressed skepticism. As a result, the authors of the study decided to conduct detailed interviews with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to see if they could both confirm the behavior and figure out a pattern to it. Two of them (Ferguson and Eussen) also reviewed their own observations over years of field work in Australia. Based on the interviews and those observations, a pattern emerged.

These three species of bird will grab a smoldering object from one fire and then fly to an area where there isn’t any fire. They will then drop the object, attempting to start another fire there. Not only will they take smoldering objects from forest fires, they have been observed stealing from campfires as well! This is not only done on an individual basis, but sometimes the birds work together so that more fire can be spread.

The authors indicate that this behavior can be an important consideration for managing both controlled burns as well as wildfires. After all, if you build a firebreak in order to stop a fire, a bird might end up helping the fire jump that firebreak. They plan to do another study with rangers who will set up controlled burns so that they can observe (and hopefully better document) this behavior.

Of course, this study applies only to Australian birds of prey (and so far, only three specific species). However, you have to wonder how widespread this behavior is. Could it be that birds are helping to spread Californian wildfires? How would firefighters take this into account? Perhaps the authors of this study (and other scientists) will get to know the birds’ behavior well enough for such questions to be answered.

For me, there are two other important takeaways from this study. First, it further illustrates just how intelligent birds are. Second, it tells us that we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the tales told in sacred rituals. Had people not dismissed the fire-spreading behavior of birds depicted in Aboriginal rituals, we would probably already know a lot more about this amazing phenomenon!

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Jay Wile

Written by Jay Wile

As a scientist, it is hard for me to fathom anyone who has scientific training and does not believe in God. Indeed, it was science that brought me not only to a belief in God, but also to faith in Christianity. I have an earned Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry from the same institution. blog.drwile.com

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  1. Wow, this is very fascinating! What surprises me is not the intelligence, for I think all creatures were gifted a high degree of intelligence at creation that has diminished over time. But what surprises me is the shrewdness (especially in a bird; we might expect it of snakes… or man!); the risk of creating more widespread damage in order to satisfy the immediate, selfish goal. Thousands of years of sin has not only taken its toll upon human personality, but to see it play out like in the habits of other creatures as well is amazing. (I feel a blog coming on!). – Romans 8:20-22 NLT “Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Thanks for this great article! William

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