Two Birds Might Be Purposely Starting Wildfires in Australia
Which opens the possibility that humans weren't the first to tame fire
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2016 5:17 PM CST
Flying arsonist? A bird of the kite species flies above a wildfire in Colombia.   (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

(Newser) – Two species of birds might be deliberately starting wildfires in Australia, the Tech Times reports. This might seem outlandish, but cultural geographer Mark Bonta tells Newsweek it's "standard knowledge" among the aboriginal community and firefighters in northern Australia. According to the Washington Post, birds of prey are known to hunt around the edges of wildfires—which force small animals to flee their hiding places—but those fires don't always start where the food is. That's why brown falcons and black kites are apparently picking up burning sticks and dropping them elsewhere to start new fires. Bob Gosford, a lawyer who works with Australia's aboriginal people, has collected 15 accounts of birds starting fires, a behavior that is referenced in at least one old aboriginal ceremony. He and Bonta of Penn State are working on getting their findings published in a peer-reviewed journal.

If the pair can prove that birds are starting fires, it "would force us to rewrite what we know," Bonta tells Newsweek. It's been taken for granted that either humans or lightning cause wildfires. The change would mean birds, not humans, may have been responsible for the fires that cleared the savannas. It would also open the possibility that humans learned to control fire by watching birds. "The birds aren’t starting fires from scratch, but it’s the next best thing," Bonta tells the Post. "Fire is supposedly so uniquely human." Bonta admits their findings won't be accepted by the scientific community until they have video of the birds' behavior. That's why they're asking people around the world to keep an eye out for fire-starting birds and to have their cameras handy. (Speaking of surprising animal behavior, one aquarium taught an asthmatic otter to use an inhaler.)
 

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