An Interesting Cause of Forest Fires: Arson Birds

Arsonist Birds

What comes to mind when we say bird? Many of us think of budgies that can say words like “hello, pretty bird, bye-bye” inside the cage. However, there are creatures that are reckless enough to set the forest on fire for their own benefit. We shouldn’t take the descendants of dinosaurs too lightly. Here is our article that will make you think again before calling someone “bird brain”…

Who Are These Birds?

Let me first put your mind at ease. These are not the birds that turned the maniacal, murderous city into a battlefield in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”. Black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon species, which generally live on the Australian continent, are responsible for arson. In fact, the Aborigines, the local people of Australia, also call black kites “fire kites“.

How Do They Swaddle?

Of course, these birds do not create sparks by rubbing stone against stone. However, if they see a little smoke around, they immediately go to the area, pick up a burning branch and deliver it to the area where they try to spread the fire. It has even been reported that they stole twigs from the campfire. Since they know the forest from a bird’s eye view, it shouldn’t be difficult for them to start a fire and instantly follow the place where the fire will reach. What they do alone or as a team has also been reported many times. We’re dealing with an arsonist gang.


Arsonist Birds

The best anecdote about this comes from an Australian firefighter who worked in the 80s. The firefighter goes to put out a small fire near a uranium mine. He puts out the fire, but another fire breaks out on the opposite side of the road. He goes there, and as he puts it out, he sees a black kite flying away with a smoking twig. He had to put out 8 fires in total until the end of the day.

When You Are Hungry, You Are Not “You”!

Are these a fire-worshipping, fire-living species? I do not think so. However, it is certain that they like their meat well cooked. Actually, their logic is simple. At the time of the fire, all living creatures on the ground flee in panic. So they reveal themselves. There are knocks coming from your house, you go out to the corridor to see if there is a thief, everything is on fire! Would you remember to look around for a thief? This turns the jungle into a buffet if you’re a flying type that’s unaffected by the fire. So you feed on chaos!


Arson Birds Visual

Let’s leave aside the moment of the fire, many corpses would accumulate in the region after the fire. You will have to share your meal with a few other bird species known as “fire scavengers,” but there will be enough food for all of you. You have all kinds of gains. You’ve filled your stomach with a few clever moves. You don’t really care if the beautiful forest is burned anyway, you can fly a little and go to another region.


Who First Learned to Manage Fire?

We now know that birds can do this. However, it is a very rare occurrence. Only a small percentage of the species I listed above can perform this act. In fact, one of the reasons why it entered the literature in the 2010s is that those who witnessed this rare situation thought that the birds did not do it on purpose. However, the article written by Mark Bonta and other scientists asked 20 different people living in the region to describe in detail what they saw and concluded that this was not a coincidence or an accident.

Arson Birds

So it’s hard to believe. These birds were already known to be fire scavengers, meaning they took advantage of the opportunity in case of fire, but the fact that they are “fire spreaders” shows us that there are other species besides humans that can use fire as a “tool”. Who knows, maybe the ancestors of these birds learned to use fire long before us. Our throne is at stake…

References and Further Reading

Coghlan, A. (2018). The birds that steal fire. New Scientist, 237(3160), 4.

Bonta, M., Gosford, R., Eussen, D., Ferguson, N., Loveless, E.Witwer, M. (2017). Intentional fire-spreading by “Firehawk” raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700.

Images not cited are used through Canva Pro with a royalty payment.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Hüseyin Kaç

I am a science-lover who is studying at the Department of Chemistry at METU, trying to explain the effects of chemistry on our lives in an understandable way and never suppressing his hunger for learning.

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