Predatory birds have been making the headlines lately with hunting tactics that seem downright villainous – and eerily human. Raptors have been spotted playing mind games with their prey, imprisoning them, and even setting fires to drive their prey out from cover. Read on to learn more about these behaviors and their cognitive implications.
In Australia, wildfires are a common problem, mainly caused by lightning and humans. But mounting eye-witness reports suggest that birds of prey could also be fire-starters.1 Specifically, there are two species that have been observed igniting fires: black kites and brown falcons.
According to park rangers, firefighters, and locals interviewed, the birds will pluck smoldering sticks from a wildfire that is already burning. They will then carry them to another field, drop them, and wait for the flames to drive out the prey.
“Reptiles, frogs and insects rush out from the fire, and there are birds that wait in front, right at the foot of the fire, waiting to catch them,” Bob Gosford, who is studying this phenomenon.2
Given that this waiting is common behavior for raptors at the scene of normal wildfires, it makes sense that they’d have motive to start their own fires elsewhere. There are often many birds of prey waiting at a fire site, so many that the competition for food is very high. Raptors starting fires elsewhere can be the first on the scene and avoid rivals.
Dr. Debus, a raptor expert from the University of New England, thinks it could be difficult to determine whether or not the birds are intentionally setting fires. According to him, it’s possible that they may be accidentally grabbing the burning sticks when they swipe a prey animal from the ground at a fire. “However, I think black kites and brown falcons are sufficiently intelligent to intentionally spread fires by dropping burning embers, because black kites have been seen to drop bread scraps from picnic areas into nearby waterholes to bait fish within striking range.” he said.3
The Australian Aborigines community has long spoken of this behavior in raptors, highlighting it in legends, folktales, and even artwork.
“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…When that area was burnt out the process was repeated elsewhere. We call these fires Jarulan.” – Waipuldanya Phillip Roberts in I, the Aboriginal4
A presentation has been made compiling this evidence, and has been shown at scientific conferences while the peer-reviewed paper is pending. The conductors of the study are hoping to gather photographic evidence during the current fire season.
If it can be confirmed, this fire-starting behavior would be the first known use of fire by any non-human animal. It also has remarkable implications for raptor cognition. In order to understand that smoldering sticks are tools that can be used to set a field ablaze, the raptors would need to grasp the basic concept of of cause and effect. The same is true for comprehending that prey will be driven out once a fire has started. Essentially, the raptors must understand a 2-step chain of cause and effect: 1 – Dropping burning sticks in a field can set it on fire. 2 – A burning field results in the appearance of fleeing prey.
The Moroccan island of Mogador serves as a pit stop for Eleanora’s falcons, as well as many other migratory birds. This species subsists on a diet of mainly insects, but during breeding season, the other birds on the island become their prey of choice. Because the falcons raise their chicks at about the same time the annual migration hits its peak, there is a guaranteed plenitude of prey for the falcons to feed both themselves and their young. But there is a balancing act involved.
The falcons transition to hunting birds just a few days before they lay their eggs. But catching and killing prey before their chicks even hatch risks the food going to waste. Fortunately for the falcons, they’ve found a solution to this problem: keeping their prey alive through imprisonment.5
By stuffing live birds into tiny pockets amid rocks, the falcons prevent them from escaping. Some of the confined birds have even been found with their wing and tail feathers plucked out – the feathers needed for flight. By removing these feathers, the falcons prevent smaller birds from being able to fly out of the holes in which they’re trapped. The falcons keep the captured birds alive in their “prison cells” until their chicks are hatched and ready to be fed fresh food.
While this strategy of amputation and imprisonment may strike us as cruel, it gives insight into the intelligence and planning abilities of the raptors. In order to carry out this behavior, the raptors need to be able to plan ahead, and this is an ability we’ve only begun to find evidence of in a few species aside from our own.
Sandpipers, small birds that can often be seen skittering along beaches, are common prey of peregrine falcons. During mating season, they accumulate in flocks of thousands, giving the falcons a prime hunting opportunity. But against all expectations, the falcons didn’t take advantage of it right away.
Guy Beauchamp, Research Officer at the University of Montreal, observed6 that when the flocks of sandpipers would first arrive on the beach, the falcons wouldn’t attack immediately. Instead, they’d wait, sometimes more than an hour before their first attack, and thereafter attack at random moments. This was surprising, considering that the falcons were likely hungry at the moment of the sandpipers’ arrival. Beauchamp recorded this trend over several years, and he speculates that the falcons do this to keep the sandpipers vulnerable.
If the sandpipers can’t predict when the falcons are going to attack, they are less able to prepare. Staying on guard at all times is an impossibility, since the sandpipers need to rest. “It’s the predator manipulating the level of fear in their prey to increase their own success. It’s good for the falcons to instill uncertainty in the minds of the pipers.” says Beauchamp.7 But the sandpipers fight back with their own wits. They’ll abandon their roosting sites at random, making themselves unpredictable to the falcons. As Beauchamp says, “a war of attrition” is being waged between predator and prey.
It’s still uncertain whether or not this is conscious behavior on part of both birds. Do the falcons have the theory of mind necessary to pull of emotional manipulation, or is this more likely a hunting strategy that has arisen through trial and error, or even simple observation?
“A predator waiting until their prey have relaxed or fallen asleep, because they have not seen a predator for a while, is just a sensible and somewhat inevitable hunting strategy for a surprise predator.” says unaffiliated bird researcher, Will Cresswell.
Only more research can give us a better understanding of what’s happening in the minds of both the falcons and the sandpipers.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of Animal Cognition.
1 – Bob Gosford, Mark Bonta
Orinthogenic Fire: Raptors as Propagators of Fire in the Australian Savanna
Paper PDF: https://www.academia.edu/22034053/Ornithogenic_Fire_Raptors_as_Propagators_of_Fire_in_the_Australian_Savanna
2 – Stephen Luntz
Australian Raptors May be Playing with Fire
3 – Colin Fernandez
Birds of prey are starting fires DELIBERATELY: Kites and falcons are ‘intentionally dropping smouldering twigs’ to smoke out mice and insects in Australia
The Daily Mail
4- Douglas Lockwood, Phillip Roberts
I, the Aboriginal
Readers Book Club, London. (1964)
5 – Abdeljebbar Qninba, et al.
A curious predation behaviour by the Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae at Essaouira Archipelago (Morocco)
6 – Guy Beauchamp
Timing of Attacks by a Predator at a Prey Hotspot
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
7 – Melissa Hogenboom
The Sneaky Way Falcons Control Their Prey’s Minds