‘Firehawk raptors’ are starting fires in Australia

Research confirms that several species of birds are spreading bushfires to flush out prey
firehawk raptor Brown falcons are one of a few raptor species known to start fires in Australia to find prey. (Kaspars Zakis | Dreamstime.com)

While much of North America contends with record cold, Australia has been having the opposite issue: extreme heat. A heatwave tore across the nation during early January setting the hottest temperature recorded in Sydney since 1939.

Australia is a famously hot and dry country. This heat brings bushfires, or wildfires every summer. It's what happens when you mix blazing heat with plenty of parched vegetation. (California can certainly sympathize with them.) But the land down under is famous for something else, too. Quirky wildlife. Usually, this refers to its numerous unique marsupial pals...or its many deadly critters! But today, we want to talk about some other super-intriguing Aussie creatures.

Birds of prey known as firehawk raptors.

Flame, set, match

Embed from Getty Images

"Wait, what? THAT fire? It was totally there before I got here!" Suuuure, brown falcon... (Getty Embed)

To be clear, there isn't a single species named a firehawk. Instead, this term refers to several species of Australian birds of prey — including the black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon — that all exhibit an extraordinary type of behaviour. They start fires to help capture prey.

Of course, it's not as though these birds are flying around with matches or blowtorches to start fires. They first need an existing fire to have been created. But when a blaze is already burning — from, say, a bushfire — the firehawks swoop into action.

They grab a burning stick with their beaks or talons, and carry it to a new location where they drop it to start a fire! Even more impressive? Research shows that many birds work together to start a larger fire. As the fire spreads, dozens of frightened rodents and other animals flee...and run right into the clutches of the waiting birds.

An ancient behaviour

Embed from Getty Images

"Psst... Hey, Bruce! You thinking what I'm thinking?" A pair of whistling kites in Australia, possibly thinking about starting a fire. (Getty Embed)

If you're amazed and shocked by all of this, so are we. But according to experts, this is not new behaviour. Nor is it newly discovered. Aboriginal peoples have known about firehawk raptors for about 40,000 years. And today, both researchers and firefighters tell stories of watching these birds purposely spread fires to new spots, then wait as a group to feed. Incredible!

All of which is to say, when you're cleaning up after your next camping trip, and the brown falcon says, "Oh, it's cool, I'll put out the fire..."

Maybe don't believe him.

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