In Australia, we have to deal with a vast array of animals that can kill us - snakes, spiders, angry roos and cassowaries. We've learnt to live with this. But are we prepared for the fact that Australian birds are using fire to catch and eat their prey? I don't think we are.
In a recent issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology, members of the Central Land Council, the NT Fire service and researchers from Pennsylvania State University report on a phenomenon known as 'fire-spreading' involving three species of raptor.
Numerous species of raptor around the world were already known to 'fire-forage', circling an active fire front looking for prey to eat as they flee the inferno. The idea of avian fire-spreading has been known to the local Indigenous communities and has even been practiced in religious ceremonies for many years, so the team looked to explicate the phenomenon by approaching members of the community for first-hand accounts of the behaviour.
One particular account, by an Alawa man named Waipuldanya and originally published in I, The Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood states:
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.
Waipuldanya also discusses a similar use of fire by Indigenous Australians, even suggesting that it is possible the trick was learnt from the birds. Others suggest this behaviour may be accidental, that the raptors merely pick smouldering sticks up in their beaks mistaking them for prey, but the idea that the fire-spreading is deliberate is backed-up by several first-hand accounts.
The research will be shed light on more effective fire management and determine how 'fire-spreading' contributes to the ecosystem of Northern Australia. It may even provide insight on human's relationship with fire and how species co-evolved in such climates.
And terrifyingly enough for Australians, we don't just have to look under foot for spiders and snakes, but now we also have to look upwards for potential Death From Above.
Of course, it's really the rodents that should be concerned.
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