Manipulating fire is an ability unique to humans. Well, humans and “firehawks.” In 2017, scientists from Penn State Altoona analyzed tales surrounding the fire-spreading habits of three Australian raptors: black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus), and brown falcons (Falco berigora). The scientists spent seven years listening to and collecting stories from Indigenous people, rangers, and academics detailing the fiery hunting style of these birds, and concluded that these “firehawks” (a collective word that describes all three birds) intentionally cause fires to flush out prey, whether grasshoppers or rodents. One account describes a particular bird grabbing a brand from an Aboriginal cooking fire and purposefully setting a piece of savanna ablaze a half-kilometer away.
“We’re not discovering anything new,” lead scientist Mark Bonta told National Geographic in 2018. “Most of the data that we’ve worked with is collaborative with Aboriginal peoples… They’ve known this for probably 40,000 years or more.” Although Bonta’s ethnographic study is conclusive, video evidence of “firehawks” purposefully setting fires — as opposed to taking advantage of already existing fires (which is a known habit) — has yet to surface. However, some ornithologists theorize the birds might be mistaking sticks for prey and dropping them once they realize the error, thus inadvertently starting fires. Other experts, however, agree this avian pyromania is possible, as other raptors have employed similarly clever tricks to obtain food, such as using bread scraps at picnic areas to bait fish.