Amazing Places

Firehawk Raptors Are Predatory Birds That Start Forest Fires on Purpose

According to Greek legend, Prometheus stole the secret of fire and gave it to humanity, and for that crime, Zeus punished him with a giant eagle who ate his liver every night. Well, it seems like the eagles might have gotten the secret from him after all these years. At least three different birds of prey have been observed setting fires on purpose.

Fire Down Under

Researchers have spotted black kites, whistling kites, and brown falcons all intentionally setting fires. And (surprise, surprise) all three are from the land of the deadliest wildlife on the planet: Australia. What happens is that any time a fire sparks in the plains or forests, the birds (collectively known as "firehawk raptors") will gather to snag a burning branch or stick. They'll then fly up to an area where the fire has not yet spread, and drop their payload.

Why? Basically, they're going on the bird-of-prey equivalent of a pheasant hunt. Hundreds of the birds will gather before one of these fires are set, and they will then collectively gorge themselves on the small rodents and reptiles that flee the inferno. This isn't an uncommon occurrence, either. Reports of firehawks seizing burning sticks out of human cooking fires or other pieces of smoldering vegetation go back for decades, and this most recent research easily turned up observations of the behavior. But in actuality, the records of firehawks goes back much, much longer.

Ancient Knowledge

Though this study represents the first time that the arson habits of firehawks were captured in scientific records, the local Aboriginal communities have known about them for as many as 40,000 years. According to some legends, the birds actually played the Prometheus role, teaching the secret of fire to early people. It's strange to imagine, but it could be true. After all, the birds have demonstrated mastery over two of the three stages of fire control (an understanding of its behavior, an ability to control it, and an ability to start it). Chimpanzees, by contrast, have only been able to get to stage one.

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Learn more about our ferocious feathered friends in "Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America" by Pete Dunne. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas February 7, 2018

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