The History of Australia Podcast

Episode 5 - Firebirds

November 01, 2020 Jasmin O'Connor Season 1 Episode 6
The History of Australia Podcast
Episode 5 - Firebirds
Show Notes Transcript

We have this idea that the use of fire is one of those things that defines us as humans and sets us apart from the animal kingdom. And that’s just not correct! It turns out that even birds can hunt with fire. 

The History of Australia Podcast

Transcript - Episode 5 Fire Hawks


Welcome to the History of Australia Podcast, Episode 5 - Fire Hawks. Last Episode, we traced the evolution of our cousins - homo ergaster, homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis and homo denisovan as they spread out of Africa and down to South East Asia, and maybe even Australasia. And this covered the period of evolution where we see the emergence of humans shaping their environment, with tools and fire. 

This week we are having a look at Fire Hawks. We have this idea that the use of fire, the cultivation of fire is one of those things that defines us as humans and sets us apart from the animal kingdom. And that’s just not correct! It turns out that even birds can hunt with fire. 

Yuval Harari in Sapiens writes “Fire...opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings. Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design. Eagles, for example, identify thermal columns rising from the ground, spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards. Yet, eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan.

 “When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours.”

But actually, Australia has crazy pyromaniac firebirds, three in fact, that also use fire as a tool for hunting. These are the black kite, the whistling kite and the brown falcon. So let’s meet our three culprits for today. Firstly the Black Kite. 

The Black Kite is a medium-sized bird of prey, so kind of like Margo Robbie. Its tail is forked, which gives this bird its alternative name of Fork-tailed Kite. Its feathers are dark brown with light brown on the shoulders, head, neck and underparts. The eyes are dark brown and the bill is black with yellow around the nostrils. That goes for both the males and females. 

 The Black Kite is a very numerous and widespread bird. It is found on most of the Australian mainland, as well as Africa, Asia and Europe.  

The Black Kite can live in a variety of habitats and is often found around outback towns where it eats from tips. yummo. Although it is more normally seen in small groups, the Black Kite may form huge flocks of many thousands of birds, especially during grasshopper plagues. No other Australian bird of prey is seen in such large flocks.

Aside from trash and grasshoppers, this bird also eats lizards, small mammals and other insects. Black Kites are also widely known to gather in flocks around bush fires, and feast on small animals fleeing the flames. These birds come to the fire fronts because it is easy feeding, animals fleeing the fire fronts aren’t taking caution not to expose themselves to being attacked from above, they’re just trying to stay alive. So it’s easy pickings. And the birds also eat any animals not fortunate enough to escape the fires too. 

Black Kites nest in isolated pairs or in small, scattered colonies. They perform ritualised aerial courtships involving loud calling, grappling talons, tumbling and cartwheeling. They make a nest of sticks, lined with softer material, in the fork of a tree branch. The female incubates the eggs while the male provides food.

The Whistling Kite is also a  medium-sized raptor. It’s light brown with pale streaks and darker wings. The underwings have a characteristic pale 'M' shape when open. It’s kind of shaggy and cute looking. The female is larger than the male. 

 The Whistling Kite is widespread over mainland Australia and is also found in New Guinea, the Solomons and New Caledonia. It is found in woodlands, open country and particularly wetlands. It is also common around farmland, vineyards and anywhere where carrion (dead animals) can be found (e.g. abattoirs, rubbish dumps and roadsides). So also very classy. Aside from carrion and trash, they also eat live mammals, birds, fish and insects. 

The Whistling Kite appears to be monogamous, with some breeding pairs remaining in a territory throughout the year and pairs actively defend the area around a nest. The bulky nest platform is built of sticks in a tall tree and may be reused, growing larger over time. Both sexes build the nest and incubate the eggs ( however the female does most of the incubation) and may breed two or three times a year. The young stay with the parents after fledging for about six to eight weeks.

Brown Falcons are small to medium-sized raptors.The sides of the head are brown with a characteristic tear-stripe below the eye. Birds from the tropical north are very dark, with a paler face and undertail, while those from central Australia are paler all over. 

The Brown Falcon ranges throughout Australia, and north to New Guinea. It is found in all but the densest forests but the preferred habitat is open grassland and agricultural areas, with scattered trees or structures such as telegraph poles which it uses for perching. Around outback towns, the birds become quite tame and will allow quite close approach. 

Brown Falcons are usually seen alone, searching for food from an exposed perch. When prey is sighted, the bird swoops down and grasps it in its claws, killing the prey with a bite to the spine. Less often the species will hunt by hovering or gliding over the ground, often at great heights. Brown Falcons feed on small mammals, insects, reptiles and, less often, small birds.

The nest used by the Brown Falcon is normally an old nest from another hawk species, but the species may build its own stick nest in a tree. Occasionally birds nest in open tree hollows. Both sexes share the incubation of the eggs, and both care for the young, although the female performs the bulk of these duties, while the male supplies most of the food.

These birds may sound relatively benign but that beguiles the fact that they’ve been documented in aboriginal culture, western scientific literature and anecdotally running an absolute muck, wreaking havoc and burning down all sorts of stuff. 

Waipuldanya, an aboriginal Australian man of the Alawa tribe in the Northern Territory records in his autobiography, I the Aboriginal, the cunning and mischief created by the firebirds. I’m going to now read a passage from this book to you: 

“Hawks and crows compete with dingoes for the title of Masters of Cunning. Those which have found their way into our cooking pots have generally been speared through sheer misfortune for them and lucky opportunity for us. Generally, they know when a hunter is in the bush as soon as he enters it, and stay well out of his way. 

The kitehawks - we call them firehawks - are inventive hunters. Much of their natural food is caught and eaten on the wing, especially around the perimeters of bushfires where they swoop on fleeing grasshoppers. But they are inclined to regard insects as hors d’oeuvres. Both hawks and crows are devotedly carnivorous and do not seem to mind how long the meat has been dead. We think of them as housekeepers, for they keep our camp areas free of rotting flesh. 

My eyes are good but I have often wished they were fitted with telescopes like a firehawk’s. It doesn’t surprise me that “eyes like a hawk” has become an accepted simile. I have seen them plummet from immense heights on to small mice, rats, lizards, and snakes that would certainly have been invisible to any human eye from such a distance, especially as such things are supposed to be protected by natural camouflage. 

Firehawks often confuse us in welcoming visitors to our tribal lands by deliberately setting fire to grass and bushland to assist their scavenging. I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh path of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles. When that area was burnt out the process was repeated elsewhere. We call these fires Jaluran. 

… If I was [an] emissary, as occasionally happened, I would light a fire every hour to inform the [other tribe] of my approach. Having seen the smokes drawing nearer ...they would know that I was on the way and send out an escort to give me safe conduct...And because of this we were sometimes confused by hawks lighting fires in a line approaching our camp.”

… And Waipuldanya goes on to add “Not only the hawks used the ruse of deliberate grass fires as an aid to hunting. We often did so ourselves, especially towards the end of the long dry season when food was scarce and ten-feet tall speargrass, which burnt readily, was a natural haven for game. It is possible that our forefathers learnt this trick from the birds.”

So isn’t that so fascinating. Waipuldanya is suggesting that aboriginal Australians learnt how to use fire as an active tool for hunting by copying the firehawks. I have read and heard of some aboriginal Dreamtime stories where it is hawks that originally discover fire. In one story, I believe it belongs to the aboriginal people of Arnhem land, it is Kakan, an old hawk, who discovered how to make fire by twirling one stick upon another. In another story, attributed to some of the aboriginal people of Victoria, unfortunately I haven’t found which tribes specifically, it is the crows of the Grampian Mountains who could exclusively and safely use fire, but then a fire stick is then stolen by a fire-tail wren, and then a hawk called Tarrakukk then in turn knicks it from the wren and then sets the whole country on fire. But there are other stories about the origin of fire that don’t involve hawks or falcons or birds at all. Fire may be given from an ancestral being, or captured from lighting, or originating from another Dreamtime animal. 

The Roberts’ in their book Dreamtime Heritage assert that there is nothing in the aboriginal dreaming  that records whether the aboriginal people or birds first discovered how to use fire for hunting. Which seems like a rather strong statement. But few details on aboriginal knowledge of firehawks are in the public domain. My understanding is that much of the knowledge of firehawks is contained in ceremonies and dreamtime stories that are of restricted access in aboriginal cultures. And I don’t want to violate any sacred knowledge, so I’m sticking to public and published accounts and the high level only. 

There is one other published source I have found documenting indigenous knowledge of firehawks. This is recorded in a publication called The language of fire - seasonality, resources and landscape burning on the Arnhem Land Plateau which has several indigenous contributors who share their knowledge on fire management. This text explains about the use of fire by the brown falcon:

“It is not only humans who use fire for their own benefit. During bushfires in northern Australia, a number of raptors can be seen following the back of the fire to take advantage of the small mammals and insects that are flushed out by the blaze. One raptor in particular, karrkkanj the brown falcon (Falco berigora), does more than just wait for the fire to burn into large patches of dry grass. This bird will swoop down, pick up a fire brand and fly off to drop it into another patch of grass. When a fire burns into a creek line and burns out, brown falcons have also been observed collecting fire brands and dropping them on the other unburnt side of the creek in order to continue the fire.

This association of brown falcons and fire is celebrated in rituals associated with the hollow log ossuary ceremony known as lorrkkon. For a number of nights in succession, sacred songs are sung accompanied by pairs of boomerangs. This singing takes place in public in the midst of the main camp. After a week or so of this evening chanting, there comes a particular night when the men will now leave the public camp and shift to a sacred and restricted location nearby, but out of view of the women and children. As they depart the public camp in the early evening, men of particular patrimoiety subsections (named Bulanj and Kodjok) line up and in imitation of the brown falcon, they hold a fire brand aloft as they celebrate this special bird in song and ritual.”

There are also anecdotal accounts of fire hawks from non-indigenous people who also call the top end home. Given the top end, much like the rest of Australia, is wanton to burn, these native pyromaniacs have been an unwelcome and destructive force on occasion. 

The caretaker manager of Ivanhoe Station, Gosford, recorded his first-hand experience with firehawks for a journal article written by Mark Bontana and company. Gosford recalls:

“In late 2002, I was caretaker manager of Ivanhoe Station, near Kununurra in the Kimberley region of WA. The homestead is on the western bank of the Ord River, ... A bushfire had broken out one afternoon on the eastern (Kununurra) side of the river, opposite me, in scrub along the river ... It was a substantial fire, with a front of about a kilometre or so. There were very strong easterly winds blowing it toward the river. The Ord River is about 100m wide. I was on the other side looking for any embers blowing over and putting out small spot fires as I found them... My water pumps and horse paddocks were on the station side so I had a lot to protect. Kites (fork tail?) were very active during the fire, swooping down for insects and things, as you regularly see in that country. As the fire burnt to the eastern bank opposite me, I started to notice that a small number of kites were diving down behind the fire front and emerging with small smouldering sticks (approx 3-4 inches), flying over to my side, and dropping them in the buffel grass along the bank. I could see them carrying these sticks in their beak and dropping them down. I confirmed this by moving to where the sticks were dropping and seeing it smouldering in the grass. I was astounded at this observation. Soon, I had a lot of small fires going that were beyond my capacity to control, and the fire took hold, ... I then concentrated on moving my horses to safer ground. The fire burnt all the way to the ranges west of the homestead (approx 6 kms) and beyond, and burnt out most of my horse paddocks and destroyed the timber horse yards. Once the fire was raging on about a 1000m plus front to the west, the kites (hundreds of them) were very active in their pursuit of a feed…”

That’s all for today, I want to give a shoutout to Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless and Maxwell Witwer. Their article “Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia” as well as the supplemental materials they made available, really formed the cornerstone of this podcast and pointed me in the direction of a lot of other excellent sources. If you’re interested in reading the article, or any of the other material referenced in the podcast, they are included in the bibliography. If you go to the website at https://historyofaustraliapodcast.buzzsprout.com you’ll find all the transcripts and bibliographies. 

Next episode we are going to cover the homo sapien discovery of Australia. Until next episode, keep safe and I’ll see you soon!

 

Bibliography

Ainslie Roberts and Melva Jean Roberts, Dreamtime Heritage Australian Aboriginal Myths in Paintings by Ainslie Roberts and Text by Melva Jean Roberts, Rigby, Adelaide, 1975

Anderson, M. 2020 Black Kite (Milvus migrans affinis), Catalogue Number XC585971,  https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Milvus-migrans?dir=0&order=cnt

Australian Geographic, This is why Aussie ‘firehawk’ raptors are spreading bushfires, 11 January 2018, https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2018/01/this-is-why-aussie-firehawk-raptors-are-spreading-bushfires/, (Accessed 3 October 2020)

Birdlife Australia, https://birdlife.org.au/, (Accessed 2 October 2020)

Cake, M. 2017, Brown Falcon (Falco berigora), Catalogue Number XC372248, https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Falco-berigora

Douglas Lockwood. I, the Aboriginal. Readers Book Club in association with the Companion Book Club, London. (1964) (with Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts)

 Evans, O. 2019, ‘Balck Kite’, Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/birds/black-kite/ , (Accessed 15 September 2020)

Espin, T. 2019, Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), Catalogue Number XC490306, https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Haliastur-sphenurus

Fire Management in North Australian Savannas: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition, edited by J. Russell-Smith, P.J. Whitehead, and P. Cooke, pp. 85–164. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.

Frazer, J.G. 1930 Myths of The Origin of Fire - An Essay, MacMillan and Co, Limited St Martin’s Street, London 1930

Garde, M., B. L. Nadjamerrek, M. Kolkkiwarra, J. Kalarriya, J. Djandjomerr, B. Birriyabirriya, R. Bilindja, M. Kubarkku, and P. Biless. 2009. The Language of Fire: Seasonality, Resources and Landscape Burning on the Arnhem Land Plateau. In Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas : Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition, edited by Jeremy Russell-Smith, et al., CSIRO Publishing, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/anu/detail.action?docID=474353. Created from anu on 2019-08-25 16:40:34. 

 Gosford, R. 2011. Firehawks of the Top End. The Northern Myth[blog]. June 28. URL:  https://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2011/06/28/birds-of-the-week-firehawks-of-the-top-end/ (Accessed 3 October 2020)

 Gosford, R. 2013. Birds, Fire and Culture – A New Research Project. The Northern Myth[blog]. April 13. URL:  https://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2013/04/13/birds-fire-and-culture-a-new-research-project/ (Accessed 3 October 2020)

Gosford, R. 2015a. Do These Raptors Spread Fire in the Australian Savanna?The Northern Myth[blog]. Oct. 13. URL: https://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2015/10/13/do-these-raptors-spread-fire-in-the-australian-savanna/ (Accessed 3 October 2020)

Harari, Y. N. 2015, Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage, London

Isaacs, J. 1980 Australian Dreaming - 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney

Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, Maxwell Witwer "Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia," Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718, (1 December 2017)

Pausas, J.G., Parr, C.L. Towards an understanding of the evolutionary role of fire in animals. Evol Ecol 32, 113–125 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-018-9927-6