The population of this beautiful mid-sized forest-dweller, Fischer’s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri) is of near to threatened status and is found in coastal and riverine forest and woodlands in Kenya, north-eastern Tanzania and southern Somalia along the east African coast.

Fischer’s Turaco has a distinctive white and black tipped red crest and grows to about 40cm in beak-to-tail length and weighs around one quarter of a kilo. All Turaco species have an adaptation in toe formation, with the outer toe of each foot being able to face either forwards or backwards. This allows for increased grip when running along tree branches. Turacos are found throughout eastern and central Africa and have two colour forms – the five species of “large blue” Turacos and the five “green” Turacos – with the Fischer’s having a distribution restricted to the coastal forests – where their calls are a characteristic part of the aural landscape.

I’m just back from a month in Canada and the USA, where, as noted in my previous post, I chaired a session on recent ethnoornithological research at the 33rd Society of Ethnobiology (the SoE) meeting at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

The following week a group of us drove north for five hours through the glorious coastline and forests of Vancouver Island to the small resort town of Tofino for the bi-annual meeting of the International Society of Ethnobiology (the ISE) where I co-chaired another, larger symposium dedicated to ethnoornithology. As I’ve previously threatened, I’ll post the Abstracts from that meeting in due course.

My co-chair of the symposium at the ISE meeting at Tofino was my good friend Fleur Ng’weno, the Honorary Secretary of the East Africa Natural History Society (the EANHS) based in Nairobi, Kenya. Fleur has spent many hours driving me around Nairobi over the past few years and has graciously shared her encyclopedic knowledge of east African birds – and much more – on a our early morning visits to my favourite part of Nairobi, the Nairobi National Park on the outskirts of that wonderful city.

So what does this all have to do with the Fischer’s Turaco? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.

In 2009 the EANHS published the latest in a series of Checklists of birds found in significant parts of the country, The Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland, on the hinterland of the Malindi coast. Dakatcha Woodland is one of several hundred Important Bird Areas that the conservation NGO Birdlife International has helped to establish, with the guidance and direction from local communities, across Africa and the world.

Fleur and the EANHS drew upon their contacts and previous research to collate the information in this latest publication, including using the previous work done by our mutual colleague Martin Walsh, who has worked in east Africa for many years and is now based at Cambridge in the UK. Martin too modestly describes his involvement in this project at his blog, East African Notes And Records: history, ethnography, ethnobiology:

The woodland is home to a number of globally threatened and near-threatened bird species and is itself threatened by illegal commercial agricultural development.

One of the birds under threat graces the checklist’s cover: the beautiful Fischer’s Turaco (Tauraco fischeri), known as kulukulu in the Giriama (= Giryama) language. This is the first checklist of its kind in Kenya to include the vernacular names of birds recorded and cross-checked by local community members. It was edited by Fleur Ng’weno, the Honorary Secretary of the EANHS, and I played a minor role by reviewing the Giriama names and advising on a consistent orthography.

I’d been keeping a file of bird names in Giriama and other Mijikenda languages since 1992, when I met ornithologist John Fanshawe in Mombasa and we discussed the possibility of working on my largely dictionary-derived list together with David Ngala, a colleague of John’s at the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve. Unfortunately other work took us both away from the Kenya coast and nothing came of this planned collaboration, although we didn’t entirely give up on the idea and I continued adding to my list of Mijikenda names. I never did get to meet David, and so was delighted to see that he was one of the main contributors to the Dakatcha checklist.

The matching of local names with reliable ornithological identifications transformed my untidy lexical collection, and I’ve typed up a working list of Giriama names incorporating the new information from Dakatcha.

Fleur Ng’weno presented at the ISE meeting at Tofino on her involvement in the development of the Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland – here is her abstract of her presentation to that meeting:

Producing a bird checklist for Dakatcha Woodland Important Bird Area in Kenya

The Checklist of the Birds of Dakatcha Woodland was published by Nature Kenya – the East Africa Natural History Society – in 2009. This Checklist includes bird names in the language of the Giriama people who live in the area, and is part of the advocacy effort for the conservation of a unique habitat.

This presentation traces the steps taken over 18 months, from the realization that the young men training as guides for birdwatchers already knew the names of the birds in their local language, to the publication of the checklist. It identifies the different consultations necessary, including compiling a scientifically accurate bird list from several sources, writing down the names used by local people, comparing them with other lists, checking the spelling, designing the format, seeking advice from ornithologists, anthropologists, linguists and tour guides, going back to the community several times, and finally putting it all together.

Essential recommendations for a similar checklist are: The person working on the checklist needs to be (or consult with) an experienced ornithologist or bird watcher, knowledgeable about bird habitats and distribution, and able to edit out incorrect records; and the local people need to know and use the local names in the field in order to match the local names to the scientific names.

These comments from Martin and Fleur both point to the complex issues involved in doing ethnobiological work properly and of its value. As Martin also notes:

Linguistic and ethnobiological research like this won’t by itself save endangered flora and fauna, but experience suggests that it does have a part to play in combating the ignorance of local knowledge and practice that all too often accompanies extractive development.

You can read Martin’s Field Notes on his linguistic work on Mijikenda Ethnoornithology here.