Whistling kite. Black kite. Brown falcon. If these names of birds are unfamiliar to you, that’s okay. Until a short time ago I hadn’t heard of these three species of raptors either. Not until a coworker of mine sent me a very interesting article about the birds, and, specifically, what these birds are known to do.

As everyone knows who pays attention to world news, Australia is ablaze. Across the continent fire has consumed some 18 million acres—and counting—of brushland, grassland, and forestland, including countless homes, too. It’s devastating to say the least.

The fires were started primarily by lightning, but some fires have been started by human activities, including even arson. But the catalyst for the fires are climatic conditions that have provided the fuel necessary for the fires to spread throughout Australia’s six states. In truth, preceding the fires, the continent has experienced the hottest and driest year ever recorded.

And believe it or not, birds—namely the three species listed above—have also played a fascinating, albeit unwanted, role in facilitating fire-spread in some places. What?! Birds spreading fire?

As I’ve come to learn, whistling kites, black kites, and brown falcons, which are species common to Australia, share mutual nicknames: “firebirds” or “arson raptors.” These species are so named because of the amazing and almost impossible to believe activity that they routinely engage in wherever and whenever fires are present. All three birds practice an action that no other animal does (except for us): they use fire as a tool (and not in a passive sense).

In other words, like people do to physically start or spread fires in unburned areas, so, too, do whistling kites, black kites, and brown falcons. Firebirds to be sure!

Remarkably, these three species of raptors have evolved to understand the link between fire and food, but that’s not really the interesting part. Species of wildlife the world over have evolved with fire and instinctively know that fire often means food. Bison, elk, deer, and other plains wildlife across the globe congregate where fire has replenished grasslands with fresh, new sprigs of nutritious grasses and forbs.

Sharp-tailed grouse, which interestingly are also called firebirds, gather on newly burned areas to take advantage of new food sources, namely insects, and as a place to sometimes perform courtship rituals. Prairie chickens are also attracted to burned-over grasslands.

Whistling kites, black kites, and brown falcons, however, take fire attraction for known food sources to new heights. During active fires these birds swoop down to the ground at locations where it’s safe to do so, pick up burning sticks and embers and, as impossible as it seems, drops the burning objects within unburned areas nearby.

And why? To flush out prey.

These crafty birds actually use fire as a tool to help them procure food. They somehow evolved this clever trick to pick up burning sticks with both their talons and beaks in order to start fires. Their actions have been blamed by Australian officials in helping to spread fires.

Whether or not the extraordinary behavior is learned or innate, or a combination of both, is hard to know, but however the birds figured it out is astonishing nonetheless.

From aboriginal legend, to confirmed and documented research studies performed by wildlife biologists, all three species of raptors have been observed using fire to force prey such as small rodents, birds, and reptiles out of hiding places and into openings where the birds can more easily capture the fleeing prey.

Large groups of the raptors will routinely gather near active fires to retrieve and drop burning objects onto unburned fuels or to take advantage of their conspecifics’ activities and resultant fires while waiting and watching for prey to escape the flames. The behavior is undeniably incredible and suggests a high degree of intelligence. These birds are capable, it would seem, of understanding cause and effect, not to mention the actual employment of tools used to put into motion the positive effects of fire for scaring prey from cover.

Indeed, Mother Nature has produced fascinating creatures everywhere throughout the world. Their behaviors are equally as marvelous as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.