Only humans can use tools and fire
There are two things which are believed to have helped the humans obtain the evolutionary advantage and put them well above all other animal species: the use of tools and fire.
For a long time we have been utterly convinced of animals being incapable of either of those. And even if we saw an ape to use a stone to crack a cocoa nut open, we scarcely found that to be something surprising since the apes are, in terms of evolution, our closest relatives and thus such a behaviour on their part was somehow to be expected. But replace an ape with a bird and the picture gets somewhat different.
Birds can use tools too
As to the use of tools, (the tool being anything that is not part of your body and it is used in order to achieve some goal) you would have perhaps encountered a crow or a magpie holding a stick in their beaks and hitting another object with it just for the fun of it.
Now imagine that magpie setting that stick aflame and dropping it on the roof of your house. ‘Impossible’ you say?
Firehawks – birds of fire
If asked what bird is associated with the fire, the first bird that comes to mind for most is that of Phoenix, the legendary bird reborn in fire. But there are other options which you might have never heard of before.
In Australia, there is a group of birds known as firebirds or firehawks. The three best known species of firehawks are Black kite, Whistling Kite and Brown Falcon, all of them raptors. They may not be the only firebird names out there, but these three are considered representative of all the birds fiddling with fire in Australia.
The aboriginals have known about these birds for centuries, but we have always taken their stories about firebirds just for that – the stories. Until quite recently, we found it hard to imagine a bird carrying fire in its beak with the intention of setting something ablaze. Yet that’s exactly what these firebirds do.
Animals are afraid of fire
All animals are afraid of fire. When the prehistoric man understood this fact and overcame his initial fear so much so that he learnt how to harness this destructive element, he ended up with a powerful weapon against the predators who were manifold stronger than himself and who, were it not for the fire, would have killed and devoured him easily.
The firehawks, it would appear, understood the power of fire as well. Unlike their prey, they overcame their fear of it and learnt to use it to their advantage.
Why do firehawks use fire?
These raptors learnt to use the fire as a hunting tool. Although they do not use it to directly kill their prey, they avail of the comfort it offers to them during their hunting spree.
Since to catch the rodents and other small animals in high grass and bushes is no easy thing, the firehawks use the fire to get their prey off their hiding out into the open where the confused animals scared of smoke and flames become an easy target for the waiting hawks. It is a hunting feast and it is easy.
But how do firebirds start the fire?
So how do they do it? Where do they get the fire to use for their hunting needs? Remember, in Australia it can get extremely hot during summers and wild fires are no rarity in that part of the world at all.
And so, all the firehawks need to do is to find a burning patch of land and get the fire there. What they do is they drop a dry stick on the burning ground and as soon as it catches on the fire, they pick it up and fly with it to their target area. Alternatively, they simply pick a burning stick or a charcoal and drop it to high grass or bushes.
In other words, the firebirds do not make the fire. They spread the existing one around.
Here we come to an interesting discovery. Every year we deal with an ever increasing number of wildfires all around the world. The temperatures on our planet are on the rise, especially so during summertime, and with them the danger of spreading wildfires.
Up until now we have lived with the general understanding that the two main causes of the wildfires are either that of the scorching sun or the human negligence (or arson). We now have a third cause to consider – the intentional spreading of wildfires by animals.
Although their reason for spreading fire is purely that of survival, it nevertheless adds up to our global woes and makes the situation with the burning wilderness so much more dire.
Allegedly, there are some birds with the same hunting tactics inhabiting South America.
The burning question, if we might use the pun, is whether or not this behaviour is teachable or, put another way, whether or not the raptors in other parts of the world, who are not known to have weaponized fire as yet, can one day learn to do so.
And if so, it then begs another question: if birds can learn to use the fire, could other animals learn how to use it too?
And let’s stop right there.