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We all know that birds are incredibly smart, but some birds in Australia take things to the next level — they can intentionally start fires!

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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Sources:
https://bioone.org/journals/Journal-of-Ethnobiology/volume-37/issue-4/0278-0771-37.4.700/Intentional-Fire-Spreading-by-Firehawk-Raptors-in-Northern-Australia/10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700.short
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-03/smart-bushfire-birds/7216934
https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/australian-raptors-start-fires-to-flush-out-prey
https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1970.72.3.02a00130

Image Sources:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Milvus_migrans#/media/File:Fire_hawks.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Milvus_migrans#/media/File:Milvus_migrans,_Ol%C3%A9ron.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistling_kite#/media/File:Whistling_kite_2.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Falco_berigora#/media/File:Brown-Falcon,-Vic,-3.1.2008.jpg
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/firefighter-gm1125209235-295702590
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Milvus_migrans#/media/File:Black-Kite.jpg
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(Intro)

It's no secret that birds can be pretty smart.  You've probably heard of birds using tools or solving puzzles, but in Australia, they take things to the next level.  There, some birds are said to intentionally start fires, making them the only animals besides humans known to do that.  Most animals don't like being near fire.  The standard instinct around flames is to drop what you're doing and run, but some birds of prey do just the opposite.  If they spot a wildfire, they'll actually fly towards it.  They've figured out that fire causes little critters to panic and flee, making them easy targets.  As long as the birds are careful not to get burned, a fire can mean an easy meal.

This incredible behavior is called fire foraging, and it's been seen in predatory birds around the world, but in Australian tropical savannahs, some birds seem to take this strategy a step further.  They're known as firehawks, because they're said to fly into active fires, carry away a burning a stick in their beak or talons, and then drop it into dry brush to start a totally new fire.  

There's a lot we don't know about this avian arson.  It's never been reliably captured on photo or video but the stories trace back generations.  Around the world, there are human cultures that have lived alongside native wildlife for hundreds or thousands of years, and these cultures can be a valuable source of what's called indigenous ecological knowledge, and a 2017 study set out to collect this local knowledge.

Most stories identify three species as the arsonists: black kites, whistling kites, and brown falcons, though there may be other birds that do it, too, and the team found that at least 12 different ethnic Aboriginal groups reported first-hand knowledge of fire-spreading in these birds.  They're even in some of their religious ceremonies.

One account goes as far as to suggest that early Aboriginal people may have learned the trick of fire foraging by watching the birds.  The study also collected observations from non-Aboriginal people, including modern-day firefighters.  As you can imagine, birds that can start fires could be a real pain if your job is to control blazes, so local firefighters are often on the lookout for the birds.

One firefighter reported an instance where he spent an afternoon putting out seven different fires started by kites, and another witnessed a group of birds start a fire that burned so out of control that it damaged a local cattle station.  In total, the study found accounts of fire-spreading from West Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory, a total area of thousands of square kilometers, so it may not be video footage, but it's pretty comprehensive ethno-ornithological evidence, that is, cultural knowledge of birds, but the behavior still hasn't been scientifically observed and documented, so the researchers aren't done yet.

They plan to conduct more interviews, set up field experiments, and equip local rangers with the tools to catch the birds in the act, and all that will hopefully reveal how often the birds start fires and how firefighters can best plan around the behavior, and it may even help researchers figure out how they learn to do it in the first place.

Everything we currently know about firehawks comes from people paying attention to nature.  Their inquisitiveness allowed them to make remarkable observations of these incredible birds, and just imagine what you could learn if you indulged in your curiosity a little more.

If you're looking for a place to start doing that, you might want to consider CuriosityStream.  CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service full of documentaries and non-fiction titles, so you can indulge your curiosity about pretty much everything.  For example, if you want to learn more about how harnessing fire altered humanity, you can watch their original series  "The History of Food".  It takes you from the invention of cooking through the industrialization of the food industry and even peeks ahead at what might lie in the future, and you can watch it plus any of their other 2400+ titles for less than $3 per month.  All you have to do is head on over to curiositystream.com/scishow to subscribe.  If you use the promo code 'scishow', you'll even get your first 31 days for free.

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