Episode 69 – Black Kite: The Harbinger of Destruction

“And today we are talking about a bird that is a harbinger of doom and destruction. But more on that later.”

Fire is a blessing and a curse. It’s constructive potential is rivaled only by its destructive capabilities. It was once thought that humans were the only creature on earth to harness this powerful energy to aid in survival. But there’s something else out there that’s borrowing our techniques to gain a competitive edge in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Measure Up

“This is the part of the episode where we convey the animal’s size and other dimensions into relatable comparisons in the form of a quiz.”

Wingspan – 150 cm – How many black kites go into the length of the world’s largest kite? (25.475 m (83 ft 7 in)) Hint: The kite was flown at the Kuwait Hala Festival in 2005. Answer: 17 black kites

Weight – 1.6 pounds (725.7 g) – How many black kites go into the weight of the food that Knickers, the 3,000 pound giant australian steer eats every day (115 pounds of hay and grain)? Hint: Knickers become internet famous last year when a picture of him next to some brown females cows of a different breed when viral. He’s seen towering over the steer’s peers, but like most internet pictures, there’s more to the story. He is a breed called a Holstein, he’s a male steer, and he’s much older than the average steer. Steers are castrated males bred for meat, but Knickers grew large quickly and soon became to big to butcher with conventional machines, so his owners decided to let him escape the plate. Steers are usually slaughtered at 18 months, when they can be 4ft at the shoulder and 2,000 pounds. Knickers is seven years old. He’s definitely a larger than average steer, but other steers used as oxen have grown to 3,000 pounds before. He’s a big boy, but not a super cow! Answer: 71.8 kites

Major Fact

Black kites and other similar birds or prey in Australia have learned to use fire.

  • They don’t use them to cook little mouse stews or make rabbit kabobs.
  • Instead, they use fire to flush out prey that’s escaping from the blaze.
  • The birds are sometimes called fire kites and they will flock to fires like seagulls flock to a basket of french fries.
  • When a controlled fire is set to clear away dead grass or when natural fire are set by dry conditions, the birds will be attracted to the smoke.
  • As the fire burns they will swoop down and pick up frantic reptiles and rodents.
  • They’ve learned that fires make for easy pickings. Not only are prey smoked out of hiding spots, they are focused on another source of danger.
  • But what does a fire kite do when there aren’t any fires.
  • They set their own.

Of course, you aren’t going to catch a hawk rubbing some sticks together like Bear Grylls or whipping out their zippos.

  • They don’t make their own sources of fire, but they will find sources and bring them to strategic locations.
  • Recent finding has noted that the firehawks grab burning sticks and embers in their beaks and drop them on dry brush to start fires. But this is just confirmation for a phenomenon that aboriginal tribes have talked about for years.
  • Sometimes they will take them from one brush fire to start another.
  • In other cases, they will take embers from cooking and camp fires that are made by people.
  • Fire marshalls, or whatever the australian equivalent is (probably something cute like flamies or hotty coppers), have seen that some fires will jump rivers and continue past unburned obstructions, most likely because the birds dropped embers to keep it going.

Unfortunately, this also makes it difficult to organized controlled burns and contain wildfires.

  • On the other hand, fires are a fact of life in tropical savannas and it’s nice that something is benefiting from it.