Last week I spent a few days at the University of California Santa Barbara campus for the 38th annual Society of Ethnobiology meeting.
I and a bunch of other presented during a session at the meeting dedicated to the ethnobiological sub-discipline of ethnoorithology, which is concerned with the study of the multi-faceted relationships between humans and birds. The session was co-ordinated by Nicole Sault.
It was a great session that hopefully will lead to the publication of a collected set of papers developed from the presentations. In the meantime, below I present the abstracts from the ethnoornithology session, titled “What Do Birds Tell Us? How Ethno-ornithology Opens Doors to Understanding Relationships with Others.“
1 – Avian Biodiversity in Two Zapotec Communities in Oaxaca: The Role of Community-Based Conservation in San Miguel Tiltepec, and San Juan Mixtepec.
By Graciela Alcantara-Salinas and Eugene S. Hunn. E: [email protected]
Oaxaca is the most biologically and culturally diverse state in Mexico, a world megadiversity region. We document the avifauna of two Indigenous Zapotec communities, San Miguel Tiltepec, Sierra Norte, and San Juan Mixtepec, Sierra Sur. During several years of periodic ethnobiological field research we have recorded 313 species between them, 208 species in San Miguel and 191 in San Juan, lists that include a substantial fraction (approximately 40%) of the endemic species and species of special concern.
The two communities contrast notably in their habitats but share deep roots in their local landscapes and traditions of conservative management. We also recorded Zapotec names and cultural beliefs and practices regarding birds and noted community attitudes and administrative practices that have sustained a rich mosaic of critical avian habitats. We suggest that Indigenous communities in Mexico and elsewhere, given certain preconditions, may provide critical human resources for biodiversity conservation going forward.
2 – A Nightingale by Any Other Name: Cultural Trends In English Folknames of Passerine Birds
By Andrew Gosler. E: [email protected]
The etymologist, Michel Desfayes, collated c. 100,000 European folk-names of birds across 11 languages, mostly from diverse published sources, and analyzed their linguistic roots. Of these, c. 7,000 English names refer to the British avifauna. Many of these were published in The Zoologist around the mid-19th century. This paper reports on a preliminary analysis of 3,297 such names covering 78 English passerine birds.
The names reflect appearance, size, voice, behavior, flight, nesting biology, place, habitat, seasonality etc. and indicate an intimate knowledge of birds. The names are phenetic, contextual and quasi-systematic in structure. Familiar species are referenced iconically in the naming of less familiar species. But they also indicate an affection for the birds, and suggest that particular forms of name, especially of the most familiar and iconic species were intended to aid children’s learning of their birds. The significance of this to present cultural trends will be briefly explored.
3 – Archetypal Harbingers: Ethno-ornithology and the Ch’orti’ Maya
By Kerry Hull and Rob Fergus. E: [email protected]
In this paper, based on our field research data among the Ch’orti’, we describe the various ways in which the Ch’orti’ interact with birds in daily life and in ritual contexts. We first examine local knowledge of birds, such as the cultural relationship between birds and spirits in Ch’orti’ thought. Furthermore, we investigate the role of birds as messengers and harbingers, tracing the development of this notion from the Classic period of the ancient Maya to the present-day Ch’orti’.
Much more than simply a food source, birds are viewed as semi-divine seers, capable of foretelling a wide range of future events. Through an ethno-ornithological analysis we show how birds function as the principal messengers of future happenings, prognosticating positive and negative events such as love, sickness, death, and poor or successful hunting. Finally, we also discuss the use and presence of birds in ritual practice among the Ch’orti’.
4 – Understanding Secwepemc Bird Talk
By Marianne Ignace and Ronald Ignace. E:[email protected]
In the Shuswap language, Secwepemctsin, birds’ talk to humans, and humans’ talk to birds, is part of interacting with the land, the plants, animals, and the world around us, what we call Secwepemcúl’ecw. To a small extent, Interior Salish “bird talk” has been documented linguistically. However, beyond disciplines, and accounting not only for linguistic form but also for ecological interactions, we provide an account here of how Secwepemc bird talk operates on a variety of levels: 1) we hear bird talk on the phonological level – what language is “read” into bird song or “bird talk” that is translated into how Secwepemc speakers relate to such bird talk around phonetic/phonolgical and prosodic paradigms in a given language, 2) how were/are these translated and transliterated into human messages around representing lines of “character speech” or memorable lines, and moreover, 3) what ecological messages do such bird talk lines give us, and what knowledge can we draw from these – within and across the issues that face indigenous communities?
5 – Ethno-Ornithology as an Opportunity for Community Participation in Bird Conservation and Sustainable Use
By Mercy N. Muiruri and Patrick Maundu. E: [email protected]
Bird habitats are increasingly under threat from a number of fronts. In Kenya, a high cultural diversity, represented by over 55 linguistically distinct indigenous community groups, poses a great potential in promoting sustainability by strengthening indigenous knowledge and practices that support conservation. Indigenous knowledge about birds can provide us with more tools for conservation. A community culture may have positive or negative impact upon the survival of affected species, and hence is of relevance to conservation.
The loss of habitat shrinking populations of bird species is of global concern. Conservation should not, however, be carried out in isolation from people’s livelihoods. The two are often in conflict and therefore a subtle balance of the two has to be found. Ethnoornithology offers us an opportunity to arrive at a win-win situation, where we achieve conservation but also increase livelihood opportunities for people.
6 – Bird is the Word – Doing Ethnoornithology on Kayteyte Country
By Robert Gosford and Myfany Turpin. E: [email protected]
The Kaytetye are an Indigenous people whose country lies 300km north of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. In April 2014 we—an ornithologist and linguist—conducted four days of fieldwork with senior Kaytetye speakers on their homelands to understand their knowledge of birds. In an effort to clarify a number of anomalous and outstanding issues in localized bird species identification and classification we used a multi-modal methodological approach: flash cards and audio files of birds restricted to the region.
Here we present preliminary results of this fieldwork and analyze the effectiveness of these and other tools for the elicitation of bird identification and local traditional bird knowledge. In particular, we found that using bird calls as a stimulus for discussion revealed ecological knowledge such as temporal and spatial (height) distribution of birds, the use of bird names as personal names and onomatopoeic basis of many Kaytetye bird names.
7 – The Eurasian Crane (Grus grus) in Ireland – Another Extinct Bird or a Key Species for an Ancient Belief System?
By Lorcán O’Toole. E: [email protected]
The Gaelic langauge is an ancient Indo-European language, which has largely been replaced by English, on the island of Ireland. The Eurasian Crane became extinct in Ireland in the sixteenth century. Many pre-historic societies across the Northern Hemisphere, identified with animism, had ritual and cultural links with cranes. If a pre-Christian European crane cult extended to Ireland, it may warrant further analysis of burial practices, crane mythology and the ancient taboo on eating cranes.
Evidence that cranes were the third commonest pet noted in early Gaelic manuscripts is examined. An Irish crane cult, if proven, may help explain the founder meaning of many place names or Tribal names with “Cor or Corr” (Gaelic word for Crane) prefixes, documented as early as 150 A. D., in Ptolemy’s map of Ireland. This review suggests the cultural and natural potential in examining clues embedded in the ancient Gaelic language of this once isolated island.
8 – Birds of Life and Death: Changing Meanings for Hummingbirds, Vultures and Condors
By Nicole Sault. E: [email protected]
Birds are messengers of meaning associated with both death as well as life. While they are airborne with a lightness of being like angels and spirits, their meanings carry great symbolic weight. This paper examines three key birds in the Americas to understand how their roles in life and death vary from one society to the next, how they hold multiple meanings in different contexts, and how these roles change over time within a society. The same bird may be connected with death and warfare in one context, and in another context be a sign of life and fertility. Examples are drawn from hummingbirds in Costa Rica, vultures in Mexico, and Andean condors in Peru.
9 – Signifying Birds in Culture, Language and Ecology
By Felice Wyndham and Karen Park. E: [email protected]
Around the world people notice birds, talk about birds, and learn from birds. Birds are often identified as messengers, augurs, teachers, and beings that have the power to affect one’s life and livelihood, especially with respect to ecological change, shifts in weather, and both good and ill future happenings. In this paper we review bird-human communication histories in several regions and culture groups, with particular illustration of Ayoreo ornithological knowledge in the Paraguayan Chaco, Rarámuri ornithology in Northwestern Mexico, and material from Great Britain and North America.
Patterns emerge from preliminary analysis, such as the predominance of non-passerines in (culturally defined) especially communicative birds (cf. Boster, Berlin and O’Neill 1986), the tendency for communication to be perceived as moving from bird to person rather than vice versa, and the persistence of markers of ecological relationships in spoken language long after certain lifeworld interactions between humans and birds are lost.
10 – That Bird Speaks Nukna: Birdsong Translation on the Huon Peninsula, Papua New Guinea
By Hannah Sarvasy. E: [email protected]
Birds are known to bear strong cultural importance in Papua New Guinea. Further, the ways birdsongs are described in Papuan languages may hold clues to cultural and social history in Papua New Guinea. In English, some birdsongs are described with onomatopoeia: crows are said to caw. Other birdsongs, however, are commonly described through a type of homophonic translation—translating the avian vocalizations into sequences of English with similar rhythms and cadences.
For instance, the Barred Owl, Strix varia, is said to call: Who cooks for you? These two ways of describing birdsongs also exist in the Papuan language Nungon. Some birdsongs that are translated into meaningful Nungon words relate to the bird’s mythic or behavioral traits. Beyond this, Nungon speakers cite some birdsongs as homophonic translations into other Papuan languages, not into Nungon. Birdsong translations may serve as important parts of the reconstruction of human and avian pasts in Papua New Guinea.
11 – Salmonberry Bird and Goose Woman: Birds, Plants and People in Indigenous Peoples’ Narratives and Traditions in Northwestern North America
By Nancy J.Turner and Jonaki Bhattacharyya. E: [email protected]
Birds and plants are major components of biocultural diversity in the world. Both are recognized and named in virtually every language and feature in countless ways in people’s systems of knowledge, practice and belief as sources of food, materials, and medicines and as ceremonial and religious symbols. However, these two major biological groups are also linked together, and their ecological associations are likewise reflected in cultural knowledge systems. In northwestern North America, there are many examples of the intersection of botanical and ornithological knowledge, reflected in people’s vocabulary, narratives, belief systems and management practices.
Here we provide diverse illustrations of this intersection in cultural knowledge of plant-bird associations. These examples link together observations of bird habits and habitats with particular plant species, and show how this complex integrated knowledge and experience have helped promote cultural richness and well-being for First Peoples of the region. Bird species from swans to hummingbirds and plants from edible root vegetables to nectar-producing flowers are exemplified as major representatives of ecocultural connections. Using these as lessons on the importance of interspecies ties to environmental and cultural integrity is a key to sustainable living into the future.
12 – Ethnoornithology on the Wall – Bird Knowledge Posters From Around the World
Myfany Turpin, Robert Gosford, Felicity Meakins and Felice Wyndham. E: [email protected]
In many cultures birds indicate events and elements in the environment and can be harbingers of news through their role in tradition and mythology. Birds can signal where water can be found, the presence of game or other food, seasonal events, as well as danger or bad news and as indicators of ecological and social events. First developed as part of the “Cultural Signs Project” at the Charles Darwin University in Australia, a template readily adaptable to illustrate local cultural and language knowledge of birds has been developed and applied by a number of Australian Aboriginal language groups and at least one European language (Welsh).
These posters are the result of collaborative work with highly-skilled Aboriginal language speakers, ornithologists and linguists and have proven to be valuable for the elicitation of other aspects of local bird knowledge, including behaviour, habitats, breeding biology and links to cultural and traditional beliefs and customs. These posters are also suitable as a language aid in schools, as a means of transmitting cultural knowledge between generations and cultures and as a support tool for local land management programs.