When the Genus Homo learned to wield fire as a tool more than half-a-million years ago, it fundamentally transformed the level of control the animals had over their environment. But according to a new study, it turns out we humans may not be the only animals on Earth who can tame the flame. Birds, specifically several species of raptor in Australia, can and do apparently start--or at least restart--fires intentionally.
They're known colloquially as the "firehawks."
“Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia,” Bonta et al. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4) (abstract): https://t.co/JJVomc5zDy #raptors #firehawks #Hawks #fire pic.twitter.com/ZX76glhLw3
— Bob Gosford (@bgosford) December 21, 2017
The study of the firehawks, which comes via Crikey, was published in the Journal of Ethnobiology by Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, et al. The research for the study began in 2011, and thanks to the authors' passionate desire to see a hawk with a mouth full of fire-tipped sticks first hand, is still ongoing.
The research for the study is focused on three types of raptor (birds of prey) found in Australia, including the Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), and the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora). The reason the research is still being conducted is because nobody has ever actually recorded these birds performing this behavior--they're like Will in Good Will Hunting, only displaying their gift when nobody is looking. Although there are apparently numerous, independent eyewitness accounts.
“Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia,” Bonta et al. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4) (abstract): https://t.co/JJVomc5zDy #ethnobiology #ethnoornithology #birds #fire pic.twitter.com/Bv4oSA6BpC
— Bob Gosford (@bgosford) January 1, 2018
In the study's abstract, the authors note that in regards to the firehawks, "Observers [have reported] both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks." But despite all of these accounts, National Geographic notes that the researchers are still looking for videos or pictures of this behavior and have yet to find any.
It seems unfair to discount this phenomenon out of hand even though there's been no recorded evidence of it. The authors note the behavior has been independently reported by 12 Aboriginal groups located near tropical savannas in Northern and Western Australia, as well as Queensland, and is even featured in some of their "sacred ceremonies." Two of the study's co-authors, Nathan Ferguson and Dick Eussen, also apparently saw the raptors display this behavior.
If these firehawks do indeed intentionally transport fire from one location to another, they would probably do so by spending time on the edges of active wildfires--which they've been recorded doing--and then swooping down, picking up a branch of some type by the non-flaming end, and then carrying it toward another spot where it would be dropped and used to start a new fire. The motive for intentionally spreading the fire would be the same as that for spending time very close to active wildfires: when there's a fire in the forest, animals of all kinds come running out, away from it. Which is basically Mother Nature's way of saying "Soup's on!" for the raptors.
This behavior, if real, would make these bird species the only other types of creature on Earth who have the ability to willingly start fires. Researchers noted in an unrelated study reported in Live Science that there are essentially three levels of fire mastery: understanding fire's behavior, controlling it through means of fuel injection or depravation, and finally learning how to start it. Incidentally, that study found that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, have only been observed with mastery of the first step.
Even more interestingly, if these birds really do start fires, it's theoretically possible that humans were first inspired to control fire by watching them do so. Bonta has written that according to Australian myth, fire manipulation may have been a behavior learned from kites, which makes some sense if you consider that birds also inspired us to fly.
Before moving forward with that intriguing notion however, these raptors should probably be recorded displaying this behavior. If the firehawks really have discovered how to carry flames through the air, we may have a nascent competitor to our throne as the world's most advanced species. And unless we all want Bird Person as our neighbor, that may be a problem.
What do you think about these firehawks? Do you feel like this research needs video or photographs to substantiate its claim, or are the eyewitness accounts sufficient to satiate your scientific skepticism? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: jinterwas, Adult Swim
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