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14.44 10 Jan 2018


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For many years, indigenous Australian sacred ceremonies about fire-spreading birds were considered to be based on myth and were not given much attention by most scientists.

But new research has reignited interest in the ways that Aboriginal rangers have to weigh the risks posed by birds of prey that spread bushfires in order to force their food to flee from shelter.

Published in the Journal of Ethnobiology, the paper describes intentional fire-spreading by "Firehawk" raptors in northern Australia - a phenomenon which has been witnessed for thousands of years.

"We're not discovering anything," the paper's co-author Mark Bonta told National Geographic.

"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."

In northern Australia the black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and the brown falcon (Falco berigora) are known as Firehawks.

Report co-author Bob Gosford, an Australian indigenous-rights lawyer and ornithologist, said that the Firehawks are known to excel with hunting in bushfire conditions.

"Black kites and brown falcons come to these fronts because it is just literally a killing frenzy," Mr Gosford told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"It's a feeding frenzy, because out of these grasslands come small birds, lizards, insects, everything fleeing the front of the fire."

Bushfires are frequent during the Australian summer and tree species such as eucalyptus have evolved to thrive because of the fires.

Mr Gosford said he had not witnessed a hawk spreading fire, but some of his co-authors had.

The birds are not capable of starting the fires themselves, but have been seen carrying smouldering or flaming sticks in their beaks or talons to spread the fire to where prey may be sheltering.

"The birds aren't starting fires from scratch, but it's the next best thing," Mr Bonta told The Washington Post last year.

"There's an immense amount of aboriginal knowledge of the birds in this country that I firmly believe that for science and land management, if there was greater recognition of it, we'd be a much better place," said Mr Gosford.


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