About Those Birds Starting Fires in Australia
Things are never as they seem.
Thanks to coverage by the Toronto Star, several local friends sent me links to this article:
Researchers have preliminary evidence pointing to Australian birds spreading fires in order to force out their prey from protected grassy areas.
Wow! Ok, that sounds like something I want to hear about. It’s a fascinating idea. Imagine, a bird not just handling fire (or embers) in its bare talons, but understanding the outcome of spreading that fire to a new location.
Seems a bit farfetched, but we know that some birds are really smart. Crows drop nuts onto the road to be crushed open by cars and then wait for the light to turn to walk out and retrieve those nuts in safety. And parrots do more than mimic human speech. They use those words to make requests and answer questions.
So sure, I might buy birds of prey spreading wildfire to drive out rodents and other prey.
I read on….
“It’s not gratuitous,” said Bob Gosford, who has collected the data.”
Oh good! We have data.
Gosford is a lawyer who has lived in Australia’s Northern Territory for 30 years … He’s also a bird lover…
Umm what? A lawyer? A tiny red flag goes up in my mind.
I keep reading. Gosford has been working with (or at least quoting extensively) a cultural geographer, Mark Bonta from Penn State. Bonta has made a name for himself in the field of ethnoornithology – the study of the relationships among people and birds – through his 2003 book, Seven Names for the Bellbird (Univ. Texas Press).
From the book description —
“Through his recounting of local lore, Bonta makes the interaction between culture and avifauna in Latin America a key to better understanding the practice of biodiversity protection.”
I like it. And I’m encouraged to see there is a professional researcher working with Gosford.
But still, where’s the bird science in all of this?
I read on…
Gosford said he has 15 accounts of Australian birds picking up burning pieces of brush and then dropping them in a new spot.
His findings come from Australian firefighters, aboriginal people and literature. The evidence is anecdotal and mythical, including one sacred aboriginal ceremony — the Yabadurrwa — in which a person acting as a bird transports a flaming branch.
There it is.
Gosford and Bonta are not documenting bird behavior. They are documenting stories about bird behavior.
At this point I’m going to stop and clarify a couple of things:
- I am not saying the accounts are not true.
- I am not saying that birds didn’t carry burning embers.
- I am not saying that a lawyer and a cultural geographer couldn’t master the fine points of ornithological field research and make a discovery.
I am saying headlines like these are inaccurate:
- Australia’s birds of prey are starting bushfires
- Study: Birds are Setting Forests Aflame by Using Fire for Hunting.
- Bird of prey seen starting fire with twig’ to smoke out mice
- Birds of prey are starting fires DELIBERATELY.
Do you see what happened there? We’ve gone from “stories about birds carrying fire exist” to “birds that set fire with deliberate intent exist.”
I’d like to hold the press accountable for exaggerating Gosford’s claims, and in many cases they do go overboard. But it bothers me that those headlines are appearing on places like the Ethnoornithology Facebook page, where Gosford is a participant, and as near as I can tell, he has made no effort to correct them.
There are two sayings in science:
- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
- Anecdote is not evidence
On the first point, Bonta seems to agree:
As Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the data are convincing, but given the significance of such behavior to the biological and earth sciences, proof is still needed for acceptance within Western scientific epistemology. ( Gosford 2011)
As he does on the second point:
“It’s second-hand and we don’t intend to say that this is happening without any doubt,” Bonta says. “But the stories [and evidence] we have, we find very compelling.” – Newsweek (2-10-2016)
Bonta also says something interesting –
For ethno-ornithologists, the rather paternalistic “it isn’t true unless and until Western scientists confirm it” is a real can of worms, needless to say — but in the case of an avian behavior pattern this highly significant, multiple independent confirmations would certainly help. ( Gosford 2011)
Help, yes. But not prove.
And it’s not a matter of “western scientists” (whatever that means anymore) being paternalistic. It’s simply scientific rigor.
Thousands of “western” men believe that Bigfoot exists, citing decades of alleged observations and clues. Science demands evidence. Thousands of “western” parents believe vaccinations cause autism. Science demands evidence.
If researchers are going to make the leap from anecdote to evidence and put forward a scientific claim, that claim needs to hold up to scientific scrutiny.
And that scrutiny does not begin here:
“Now we are looking for more accounts from members of the public of this behaviour.” —Gosford 2013
The plural of anecdote is not data. More accounts do not make the bird behavior more true. If that logic held, Bigfoots would walk among us.
Gathering data begins by looking at the birds and rigorously documenting their behaviors both in and outside of the presence of fires. When do birds normally pick up sticks, fiery or not? When do birds descend into burning grass? What do they normally come out with?
It involves obtaining photographic evidence. But not just a crowd sourced snapshot or video clip. There must be detailed educated observations around that incident.
If a bird is filmed picking up a smouldering ember, what exactly happened in that moment? Can we really assign intent to the behavior or was it accidental? How long did the bird carry the fire stick? How long does it take for a bird’s foot to burn? Could that be why it dropped the stick?
It also includes looking at the fires. I am not a fire scientist, but I am sure there are ways to determine when, where, and how a particular fire got started.
I find Gosford and Bonta’s theories intriguing. I’m fascinated by the idea that birds might be doing this. I’m open to the possibility based on what I know about bird intelligence. But are the birds carrying fire?
In this case counsellor, the burden of proof has not been met.