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For most animals, wildfires are devastating events. They ruin habitats, take away food sources, and are responsible for around 3% of animal deaths. However, in the most severe cases, such as the Pantanal fires of 2020, around 17 million creatures were killed.
But there are some creatures, most notably birds, that use wildfires to their advantage in a phenomenon known as ornithogenic fires in which some birds will even encourage the spread of the fire. If you watch an area caught in a wildfire, you’ll likely notice that a lot of birds flock around the area, often waiting to prey on animals trying to make their escape.
Bird Species that Exploit Wildfires
While this is a phenomenon in nature that not many people are aware of, it happens more often than you might think and there are several bird species involved.
1. Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
The black kite, sometimes nicknamed the firehawk, is one of the primary birds known to follow fires. This species capitalizes on the devastation of the fire and has an excellent natural ability to spot prey fleeing from burning areas. This prey is usually small rodents and reptiles, but they can even spot prey as small as an insect!
Black kites are raptors (birds of prey) and are found in both temperate and tropical regions of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. In Australia, there are even folklore tales that say firehawks taught humans how to use fire!
These birds are not only known to take advantage of naturally occurring fires, but are quite the arsonists, carrying burning sticks to unaffected locations in order to spread the fire. During studies, it has been observed that they’ll even work in cooperation with one another to spread the fire. Once the birds have exhausted the prey opportunities in a specific area, they’ll set another alight and this could be up to half a mile away from the original location.
2. Brown Falcon (Falco berigora)
The brown falcon is another species of raptor known for its pyromaniac tendencies and again, these activities are happening throughout Australia.
Brown falcons’ diets mainly consist of small rodents and mammals, but they are also partial to insects and caterpillars. In any case, they’ll use their fire-starting skills and amazing eyesight to smoke out and catch their next meal.
Just like the aforementioned black kite, the brown falcon has also been dubbed a type of firehawk and again, they’ll take smoldering sticks to start new fires and keep their prey moving.
3. Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus)
In Australia, the whistling kite is another bird that joins the party with the black kite and brown falcon in starting new fires to draw out prey.
There was a report from a firefighter in the Northern Territory who was on a job and, as well as extinguishing the fire he’d been called to attend, had to put out seven further mini fires started by a whistling kite.
The whistling kite has long been the stuff of legend but in studies, as many as 12 Aboriginal groups claimed to have witnessed, first hand, these birds intentionally starting fires. As they do this, they’re able to get their favorite foods moving, such as small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Where food sources are good, as many as 30 whistling kites may form a group, although they’re typically solitary animals.
4. Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer)
The marabou stork is a species of wading bird found in sub-Saharan Africa. While the bird is always found near a water source, they’re common around landfill sites and a very frequent visitor to fishing villages, showing that they have no problem sharing the territory with humans.
The main part of the marabou stork’s diet consists of carrion but they are also known to feed on live animals when the opportunity presents itself.
Interestingly, these birds will take advantage of wildfires by marching around the edges of the fire for small animals to flee, catching them before they can make their escape.
5. Black-Backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus)
The black-backed woodpecker is native to the forests of North America in Canada and some parts of the northern United States and is sometimes called the Arctic three-toed woodpecker. In any case, this is a very interesting species owing to its preference for living in forests that have been affected by wildfires.
They love this environment because many species of beetles will actively seek out warm spots (like recently burned trees) in which to lay their eggs. Since these woodpeckers love a beetle-based feast, they make the most of this habitat. What’s more, after a fire, the trees have no defense against these beetles, so they’ll arrive in their thousands.
Sadly, post fire logging is affecting the habitat of the black-backed woodpecker, so conservationists are looking at ways in which they can offer protection to this species. Moreover, since these birds are an indicator species, researchers are using them to study post fire recovery.
6. Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis)
The spotted owl is a non-migratory species native to southern Canada and the United States. They rely on Douglas fir forest habitats, but these areas are very slow growing and can take up to 200 years to mature!
For many years, it was believed that wildfires destroyed the liveable habitat for spotted owls, but new research has actually shown that they may be thriving in these burned areas. Further research showed that even one year after a wildfire took place, as many as 86% of spotted owls within the area were still alive.
What’s more, it’s been reported that the occurrence of wildfires appears to have very little effect on the spotted owl’s mating or foraging activities and that burned forests may actually be beneficial to them. So, while other animals may struggle to survive, it seems that the aftermath of a fire provides these beautiful birds with the perfect home. Moreover, research suggests that these owls are adaptable and will prey on different animals with a higher survival rate, such as flying squirrels, after a fire has taken place.
7. Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides)
Mountain bluebirds are part of the thrush family, and the males have striking royal blue plumage, making them one of the most beautiful birds in western North America.
These birds prefer a habitat that has recently been affected by fire. You might think that this seems odd, but consider that these areas are often covered in new grasses which creates the perfect environment for these birds to hunt for insects.
Being omnivores, they’ll also feed on berries, and while these might not be abundant in newly burned areas, as long as there are still trees for nesting, it would appear that the mountain bluebird is more than happy to set up home.
However, sadly, in the last 50 years or so, there has been a notable decline in mountain bluebird numbers. It’s thought that logging, coupled with the intentional prevention of wildfires, could be the reason for this.
8. White-Tailed Hawk (Geranoaetus albicaudatus)
The white-tailed hawk is a raptor that is native to tropical and subtropical regions within the Americas. These are large birds with a healthy distribution and good population so are not considered to be under threat.
While the white-tailed hawk is often seen feeding on carrion, it’ll also chow down on live food where it is available. For example, during a wildfire, these birds of prey will gather in large numbers around the edge of the affected area, where they will wait to pick on fleeing prey.
They typically head for areas where there are grass fires and could number up to thirty when such an event takes place.
9. Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus)
Bateleurs are a species from the eagle family that are found in sub-Saharan Africa. They have a very unique appearance with dark to black plumage and a brightly colored beak.
But what’s really interesting about these birds is their hunting tactics. Like many of the other birds on this list, they are often found around grass and shrub fires where they will take advantage of prey species trying to get away and can be seen patrolling these areas in search of insects.
However, primarily, they feed on carrion, and wildfires provide the perfect opportunity to find a freshly killed animal. But when fires are not currently happening, these birds will even intercept other raptors making a kill and take the meal for themselves.
10. Fork-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)
Fork-tailed drongos prefer a wooded habitat, although not those that are especially dense. They’re found in the southern parts of Africa, which is why they’re sometimes called the African drongo.
While the fork-tailed drongo may occasionally feed on fish and other small birds, its main diet is largely made up of insects. It is for this reason that the species can often be found gathered around wildfires in the hopes of catching insects that are trying to flee.
Usually, these are solitary birds but will form bonded pairs and can become highly territorial during these pairings.
11. Grasshopper Buzzard (Butastur rufipennis)
Grasshopper buzzards are raptors that are found in the sub-Saharan regions of Africa, north of the equator. They’re a medium sized species, typically not growing to more than around 14 inches (36 cm) in length, with a 35 inches (90 cm) wingspan.
The grasshopper buzzard, as its name suggests, largely feeds on grasshoppers, but it’s also happy to prey on other insects. Because of this, it’s usually found in grassy habitats where cattle stir up insect activity.
But when there’s a grass fire raging, these birds can be found circling overhead safe in the knowledge that their favorite prey will be super active and trying to escape the blaze.
12. Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)
The crested caracara has a small range around Central America where it is found in open areas such as dry prairies. These birds have a majestic appearance with black plumage, a white face, and a brightly colored beak. They’re considered to be the second largest type of falcon on the planet.
Like many of the other birds I have discussed in this list, the crested caracara largely feeds on carrion. But it isn’t averse to preying on live animals and will take advantage of natural disturbances, like wildfires, to get its talons on a tasty meal.
This might include reptiles, small mammals, rodents, insects, and even other birds. As well as hunting around fires, crested caracaras are also known to make the most of agricultural activities that may also flush out unsuspecting prey.