Adding to the list of animals that make use of tools, it turns out that Australian raptors deliberately set fires to flush out prey, picking up burning sticks from an existing fire and dropping them onto dry grass to start a new conflagration. Although this is news to modern science, stories of this behavior are interwoven into Aboriginal culture, from knowledge that spans back through the millennia.
Bob Gosford is an ethno-ornithologist, studying the relationship between cultures and birds, and has collected first-hand and traditional accounts of a phenomenon that Australian Aborigines call "Firehawks", birds-of-prey like whistling kites and brown falcons that intentionally start grassfires to flush out prey. While this is a new concept to modern researchers, it is common knowledge amongst Indigenous Australians, and Gosford set out to bridge that knowledge gap.
"I’ve spent the last 10 years and more working in this field of ethno-ornithology, in Australia, in New Zealand, with Papua New Guinean people and increasingly with people in places like Africa and Central America," Gosford explains.
"When I talked to Aboriginal people about it later, they said, ‘Well that’s what the birds do, that bit in the ceremony is us telling the story to those people that don’t know, about this is how these birds behave’."
Gosford, along with co-author and Penn State University Earth Sciences professor Mark Bonta, published the accounts in the Journal of Ethnobiology as a means of helping firefighters understand how some wildfires can jump across natural barriers and firebreaks, and to highlight the importance of traditional Aboriginal knowledge. Gosford’s interest was first piqued when he read a passage from "I, the Aboriginal", a 1964 autobiography written by Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts.
"I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles," according to Roberts.
"We’re not discovering anything," cautions Bonta. "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."
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