What is an Australian Firehawk?

Australian firehawks are raptors that spread wildfires to catch prey. They include Black Kites, Whistling Kites and Brown Falcons. Aboriginal peoples have known about this behavior for generations.

These birds pick up burning sticks and spread uncontrolled fires. The fires often start small but spread widely, endangering people and livestock. Humans persecute the birds for this. Other birds may feed on prey the fires flush out. Black Kites outside Australia do not exhibit this fire spreading behavior.

Firehawks live in Australian forests and scrublands. Aboriginal peoples have long imitated them in ceremonies. They see the birds as part of the natural order, using fire to hunt and manage ecosystems.

Scientists confirmed Aboriginal knowledge of firehawks in a 2017 paper. They rarely witness the behavior firsthand. Bushfires worsen recently from climate change, threatening lives and property. Yet Aboriginal peoples still honor the firehawk.

Do Australian Firehawks use fire to catch prey?

Australian birds known as firehawks use fire to catch prey. They pick up burning sticks and drop them elsewhere to flush out animals. Then they swoop down to catch them. Firehawks live in tropical habitats like savannas. They are raptors that hover over flames to capture fleeing prey.

Ranchers and firefighters reported seeing raptors spread fire by dropping burning sticks. This smoked out and killed prey. The birds took advantage of existing fires or started new ones. They have developed this clever technique to obtain food.

Aboriginal people sang about sacred “firehawks” for thousands of years. New research combined traditional knowledge and modern reports. At least part of the legends seem valid. Northern Australian raptors spread fire to smoke out prey.

The main firehawk species are black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons. They circle wildfires to catch insects and animals fleeing the flames. It’s a feeding frenzy for them.

The uncontrolled fires caused by firehawks can spread widely. This endangers people and livestock. Other birds may also take advantage of the prey flushed out by firehawks. But these clever raptors stand out with their arsonist hunting behaviors.

What birds use fire to flush out prey?

Australian ‘firehawks’ carry fire to new locations to flush out more prey. Some birds in Australia take flaming sticks from wildfires and carry them to other areas of woodland, to flush out prey. Accounts suggest three Australian birds of prey species use smouldering branches to spread fires to flush out their prey – black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons. They regularly congregate near bushfires, taking advantage of exodus of small animals – but appear to have learnt to use fire to their advantage, and also to control it.

The paper suggests at least three raptor species called “firehawks” spread brushfires to flush out prey. If true, it would mean birds either “use fire” or “weaponize fire”—something only known in humans. In response to criticism, more eyewitness accounts were collected of birds carrying burning sticks and embers to set alight grassland. The whistling kite was added to the group of fire-starting birds.

“The intent is to spread fire to unburned locations to flush out prey via flames or smoke,” researchers write. This behaviour sees prey driven toward raptors by a wall of flame, enabling a feeding frenzy upon fleeing or scorched animals. Inspiration came from a passage in an Indigenous doctor’s 1964 autobiography.

Raptor species in northern Australian savannas spread fire to smoke out prey. Black kites were witnessed carrying smoldering sticks to deliberately start fires and capture escaping rodents. Although unusual in birding, kites may take embers from one fire to start another fire to flush out more prey. According to reports, fire managers have seen kites pick up burning sticks, carry them to dry grass and drop them to start new fires. If raptors use fire this way, perhaps Californian birds also deliberately start spot fires using embers from other fires. This possibility is worth investigating, as birds helping fires jump breaks needs consideration in fire management plans.

How big are Australian Firehawks?

Australian firehawks range from 16 to 24 inches in length and 1.3 to 2.3 pounds. The Brown Falcon is the smallest. The Black Kite and Whistling Kite are larger and similar in size. Their wingspans vary: Black Kite and Whistling Kite around 48 to 58 inches with highly slotted wing tips; Brown Falcon 34 to 45 inches with less slotted wings. Whistling Kites reach speeds up to 118 miles per hour, Black Kites reportedly over 100 miles per hour.

The Australian Firehawk inhabits mainland Australia. This resident raptor has a widespread distribution across the continent’s forests and woodlands. Indigenous peoples have long known the firehawk spreads fires to flush out prey. Researchers now confirm this behavior in Black Kites, Whistling Kites and Brown Falcons. Carrying burning sticks, they start new blazes so prey can’t escape. Firefighters have seen the rare event. Dick Eussen, chasing a fire in the Australian outback, was surprised when it suddenly jumped a highway. Looking up for an explanation, he spotted a firehawk spreading the flames.