Australian Firehawk

Last updated: January 5, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Garry Chapple/Shutterstock.com

Australian firehawks are the arsonists of the avian world!

Australian Firehawk Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Accipitriformes & Falconiformes

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Australian Firehawk Conservation Status

Australian Firehawk Locations

Australian Firehawk Locations

Australian Firehawk Facts

Prey
Small mammals including rodents and bats, reptiles including snakes and lizards, amphibians, other birds, invertebrates and insects, and carrion
Main Prey
Insects if food sources are scarce
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
  • Colonial Nesting
  • Flock
  • Pair
Fun Fact
Australian firehawks are the arsonists of the avian world!
Biggest Threat
Car strikes; chemicals from pollution and pesticides; human persecution
Most Distinctive Feature
Fire spreading behavior
Distinctive Feature
Brown plumage, medium-size, slender build for a bird of prey
Other Name(s)
Black Kite; Whistling Kite; Brown Falcon
Wingspan
34 to 45 inches for the Brown Falcon; 48 to 58 inches for the Black Kite and the Whistling Kite
Incubation Period
30 to 40 days
Age Of Fledgling
40 to 50 days
Habitat
Grasslands, shrublands, savannas, forested areas, wetlands and coastal areas
Predators
Larger birds of prey
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Flock
  • Colony
  • Pair
Favorite Food
Meat or insects
Common Name
Australian firehawks
Special Features
Tendency to spread fire by moving burning sticks from one location to another.
Number Of Species
4
Location
Australia
Average Clutch Size
3

Australian Firehawk Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
Skin Type
Feathers
Top Speed
118 mph
Lifespan
Up to 24 years
Weight
1.3 to 2.3 pounds
Length
16 to 24 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
2 to 3 years
Venomous
No
Aggression
High

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Australian firehawks are the arsonists of the avian world!

Australian firehawks are not a single species. They are not even all in the same family. Instead, these are a group of birds that live in Australia that all share a particular behavior. They intentionally set fires, presumably to make it easier to catch prey. These firehawks, as they have been called by Aboriginal people for generations, include at least three species of raptors: the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), the Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora). Some might say these birds just want to watch the world burn, but their behavior is more complex than that. These intelligent birds make use of an effective tool to maximize their hunting efforts on the Australian savannas.

Incredible Australian Firehawk Facts

  • Australian firehawks include at least three species from two different bird families.
  • These birds pick up burning sticks and spread fires up to a kilometer from the source.
  • The uncontrolled burns caused by Australian firehawks often start with campfires or other small fires and can spread across large areas, endangering people and livestock.
  • The Australian firehawks are persecuted by humans due to their arsonist behavior.
  • Other birds often swoop in to plunder the prey that Australian firehawks flush out with their fires.
  • The Black Kite, one of the species known as an Australian firehawk, has other subspecies in Europe, Asia and Africa as well.

Where to Find Australian Firehawks

Although each of the birds known as Australian firehawks can be found across different ranges, their shared range includes Australia and parts of Papua New Guinea. Of the multiple subspecies of the Black Kite, only one, Milvus migrans affinis, also known as the Fork-tailed Kite, is found in Australia. It also inhabits Papua New Guinea and a few nearby islands. The Brown Falcon inhabits Tasmania, in addition to mainland Australia, as does the Whistling Kite, which has also been recorded on the island of New Caledonia.  

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All three of these birds live in a variety of habitats, including forested areas, wetlands, and coastal regions. However, they earned their reputation as firehawks on the grasslands, shrublands and savannas. These are the regions where they are best known to spread fires.

Australian Firehawk Nests

The Black Kite and Whistling Kite both make their nests in trees. They fashion their nests of sticks and twigs, and they tend to reuse nests year after year. The Brown Falcon is more likely to use the nest of another hawk or large songbird. It also sometimes makes its nest in a hollow limb of a tree.

Australian Firehawk Scientific Name

All three birds that are known as Australian firehawks look similar, but they are not all closely related. In fact, the Brown Falcon is more closely related to parrots than to the Black Kite or the Whistling Kite.

The Brown Falcon, Falco berigora, is part of the Falconidae family, which is a division of the Falconiformes order. The Falconidae family includes roughly 60 species of falcons, falconets, kestrels and caracaras.

The Black Kite, Milvus migrans, and the Whistling Kite, Haliastur sphenurus, are both members of the Accipitriformes order, which includes hawks, eagles, vultures, and kites. Most of the birds in this order were included in the Falconiformes order until very recently. In 2008, based on genomic studies that demonstrated the lineage of the birds, the order was split. Within the new order, the kites are part of the largest family, Accipitridae, which includes more than 250 species.

Australian Firehawk Appearance

The birds known as Australian firehawks are medium sized birds of prey. They have brown plumage, sharp talons, and curved bills. All three have a slender and somewhat delicate appearance, especially as compared to familiar accipiters like the Red-tailed Hawk.   

The Black Kite averages about 19 to 24 inches in length, while the Whistling Kite is 20 to 24 inches long. Their weights average between about 1.3 to 2.3 pounds. Females of both species are slightly larger and heavier than males. They both have lighter plumage on their heads and shoulders than on the rest of their upper bodies. The Whistling Kite’s head and shoulders are much lighter in color, as is the underside of its tail. The Black Kite’s outer wings are black, and its tail is barred underneath.

Black Kite (Milvus migrans) landing over a grassy area.
Black Kite (Milvus migrans), also known as an Australian firehawk, landing over a grassy area.

©Vladimir Kogan Michael/Shutterstock.com

These kites both have long, bowed, comparatively narrow wings with slotted primary feathers giving a finger-like appearance at the tips. The Black Kite has a wingspan of 55 to 59 inches, while Whistling Kites have a wingspan of 48 to 58 inches. Whistling Kites have a distinctive “M” pattern on the underside of their wings, which is visible in flight.

The Brown Falcon is smaller than either of the kites. It averages 16 to 20 inches in length and has an average weight of 1.3 pounds. This falcon varies in color, with morphs from dark brown to light or reddish brown. It always has a dark mustache and lighter feathers under its chin. The Brown Falcon’s wings are not as bowed as the kites, and the wing tips are only slightly slotted. Its wingspan is 34 to 45 inches. The tail may be fanned widely and rounded in flight.

Australian Firehawk Behavior

The birds known as Australian firehawks share a distinctive behavior for which they were named. They intentionally spread fire by moving burning sticks from one location to another to force out prey. They swoop in and pick up burning sticks in their beaks or with their talons and drop them up to a kilometer away. This behavior can endanger both humans and local livestock, and it is a reason that these birds are often persecuted.

Sometimes the birds work alone, but often in groups. They may repeat this process as needed, to move fires significant distances from the original source. They spread fires across waterways, roads, and other obstacles. Once they get a new fire started, they descend on the prey that it flushes out. Many other birds may also swarm to the area to plunder the feast.

Other Behaviors

These birds are diurnal. They hunt during the daytime, from perches or in flight. They swoop to catch prey, and they may steal food from other birds or other animals.

Migratory behavior varies between the species. The subspecies of Black Kite that lives in Australia is not migratory. Whistling Kites do migrate from breeding grounds in the south to winter grounds in northern Australia. Some Brown Falcons also migrate across their Australian range, while others stay in place year-round.

While all three species form pairs, they are sometimes solitary. The kites sometimes congregate in colonial roosts, and the Brown Falcon also sometimes forms flocks when following swarms of insect prey. Because Australian firehawks are drawn to smoke, these birds often flock to fires along with many others of the same or other species.

Diet

Australian firehawks are not picky eaters. All three species are all carnivorous birds of prey. They eat mammals such as rodents and bats, other birds, reptiles such as lizards and snakes, amphibians, and fish. They also eat large quantities of invertebrates and insects, especially locusts and grasshoppers. These birds eat both live prey and carrion. During times when prey is scarce, they may subsist on mainly carrion or insects.  

Australian Firehawk Reproduction

The Australian firehawks, like many birds of prey, form monogamous pairs. The Brown Falcons likely mate for life. The kites may also mate for life, but sometimes engage in extra-pair mating. The Black Kite and the Whistling Kite average 2 to 3 eggs, while the Brown Falcon averages 2 to 5 eggs.

Both males and females may incubate the eggs and help care for the chicks. Depending on the species, incubation lasts from 30 to 40 days. The kites leave the nest after approximately 50 days, while the Brown Falcon chicks fledge after closer to 40 days. Parents continue to watch over and care for the fledglings for a while. The birds reach sexual maturity between 2 and 3 years of age.

Predators & Threats

The Australian firehawks have few natural predators, save for larger birds of prey. Because of their swooping behavior, they can easily be killed by car strikes. Power lines are another danger, both due to collision and electrocution.

One of the greatest threats to these birds is pollution and the use of chemical pesticides. Chemicals consumed by prey animals can build up in the birds and cause damage to their organs which may result in death.

Persecution by humans is another threat to each of these species. Although birds of prey are protected in Australia by legislation, the Australian firehawks have long been targeted by people. Ranchers on the savannas, especially, target birds resembling the firehawks. They often shoot the birds in attempts to protect their livestock and homes.

Lifespan

Although all three species known as Australian firehawks are listed as species of least concern on the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species, numbers appear to be declining. Black Kites live up to about 24 years of age, while Whistling Kites can live up to 20 years and Brown Falcons can reach approximately 16 years. Their average lifespans in the wild are lower, of course, and affected by a number of factors.

Controlled Burns vs. Australian Firehawks

Controlled burns are a technique commonly used in ecological management around the world. For instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, to enhance habitats and prevent wildfires within the National Wildlife Refuge system. Fires started by birds such as the Australian firehawks are uncontrolled and can easily endanger humans, livestock, and wildlife. Although this behavior comes naturally to the birds, humans should take measures to protect against the spread of wildfire by carefully attending their campfires and other controlled fires.

Similar Animals

  • Peregrine Falcon – The Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, is known as the fastest animal on earth. Like the Brown Falcon, it is part of the Falconidae family.
  • Mississippi Kite – The gray and white Mississippi Kite, Ictinia mississippiensis, is found across much of the southern United States and migrates in the winter to South America.
  • Red Kite – The Red Kite, Milvus milvus, has wings patterned with white and a deeply forked tail. It is slightly larger than the Black Kite and the Whistling Kite.

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About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Australian Firehawk FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do Australian firehawks look like?

The birds known as Australian firehawks are medium sized birds of prey. They have brown plumage, sharp talons, and curved bills. All three have a slender and somewhat delicate appearance.

How big are Australian firehawks?

Australian firehawks range in size from 16 to 24 inches in length and 1.3 to 2.3 pounds. The Brown Falcon is the smallest of these birds. The Whistling Kite and the Black Kite are larger and similar in size.

What is the Australian firehawk’s wingspan?

The wingspan of Australian firehawks varies by species. The Black Kite and Whistling Kite have wingspans of around 48 to 58 inches, and their wing tips are highly slotted. The wingspan of the Brown Falcon is 34 to 45 inches and its wings are not very slotted at all.

How fast do Australian firehawks fly?

Australian firehawks are fast birds. Whistling Kites can reach speeds of up to 118 miles per hour, while Black Kites can reportedly exceed 100 miles per hour. Brown Falcons may be even faster, as falcons are among the fastest birds in existence.

How many varieties of Australian firehawks exist?

There are at least three distinct species known as Australian firehawks. They include the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), the Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora).

There are at least three distinct species known as Australian firehawks. They include the Black Kite (Milvus migrans), the Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora).

The Australian firehawks are the arsonists of the avian world. They can transport fire more than a kilometer from its source by carrying burning sticks and dropping them in the grass.

Where do Australian firehawks live?

The species known as Australian firehawks live in Australia and Papua New Guinea. This is the extent of the range of the Brown Falcon. The Whistling Kite also lives in New Caledonia, while other subspecies of the Black Kite live in Africa, Europe and Asia.

Do Australian firehawks migrate?

Some of the birds known as Australian firehawks migrate seasonally, while others do not. The subspecies of Black Kite that lives in Australia is not migratory. Whistling Kites do migrate from breeding grounds in the south to winter grounds in northern Australia. Some Brown Falcons also migrate across their Australian range, while others stay in place year-round.

What do Australian firehawks eat?

Australian firehawks eat mammals such as rodents and bats, other birds, reptiles such as lizards and snakes, amphibians, and fish. They also eat large quantities of invertebrates and insects, especially locusts and grasshoppers. These birds eat both live prey and carrion. During times when prey is scarce, they may subsist on mainly carrion or insects.

How many eggs do Australian firehawks lay?

Australian firehawks average 2 to 3 eggs per clutch.

When do Australian firehawks leave the nest?

Australian firehawks leave the nest between about 40 and 50 days, depending on the species.

How long do Australian firehawks live?

The lifespan of Australian firehawks varies depending on the species. Black Kites live up to about 24 years of age, while Whistling Kites can live up to 20 years and Brown Falcons can reach approximately 16 years.

Are Australian firehawks rare?

Australian firehawks are listed as species of least concern by the IUCN Red List and are not considered rare. The exact sizes of the populations of the Brown Falcon, the Whistling Kite and the Australian subspecies of the Black Kite are not known.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Mark Bonta, et. al., Available here: https://bioone.org/journals/journal-of-ethnobiology/volume-37/issue-4/0278-0771-37.4.700/Intentional-Fire-Spreading-by-Firehawk-Raptors-in-Northern-Australia/10.2993/0278-0771-37.4.700.full
  2. Susan Morse, Available here: https://www.fws.gov/story/managing-fire

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