As I’ve been researching Indigenous bird names from what is currently known as North America, I’ve also been reading a book from a very different part of the world: Mount Bosavi, Papua New Guinea (Feld, 1991). It’s a musicology text, written by an ethno-musicologist that embedded with the Kaluli. He speaks to how well they know the birds around them, and how prominently bird song plays into not only the perception of the birds themselves, but many aspects of their culture. The deep knowledge of bird song among the Kaluli people is what has grabbed my attention about this text, and has either reshaped or confirmed my thoughts about how our ancestors may have interacted with their soundscape.
I was surprised, though, to find a contrast in our recent travels. At the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, there’s a wonderful slideshow of Arikari names for birds (and their etymology; as you can imagine, I was stoked). What’s really interesting to me, as a landscape ecologist (and budding soundscape enthusiast), is that perhaps cultural perception of birds is landscape-dependent. It makes sense that in a tropical forest, where you may not see many birds, you’d be more likely to cue in on and refer to sounds. What struck me though is that this even extended to some of the most elaborate large birds we have on this planet: the birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae)! If there’s a bird family you’d describe by appearance, I’d think it would be that one!
Kaluli categorize and think about routine experiences of birds most often and most thoroughly in terms of the sounds they hear in the forest and at the village edges…In the bush or at the village edge, they point out birds by saying ‘Listen,…do you hear X?’ then an interpretation is made, such as, ‘It says its name.’ When asked direct questions that include the name of the bird, the response ‘It sounds like X’ is universally presented by Kaluli before any sort of ‘It looks like X’ statement. (Feld, 1991, pp. 71-72)
By contrast, the birds of the Great Plains often had names that referenced their appearance (or in some cases, seasonality)! I have to admit that was the opposite of what I expected, since they are often hard to see and identify visually. Instead, grassland birds have songs that carry far over the open landscape. It leads me to a whole new suite of questions: is “vegetation getting in the way of visual cues” really the driver between whether humans rely on sound or sight?
Adaptation to life in a forest environment develops acute spatial skills for audition, and Kaluli use these to advantage over vision. In my experience, bird calls and bird life constituted the most accessible domain from which many of the experiential aspects of this perceptual system were linguistically marked.” (Feld, 1991, p. 62)
Is it hard to link up song sometimes with individual bird in grasslands? For example, we heard songs we were able to identify with the aid of learning tools, but the songs carried from afar and we had no hope of seeing the individual bird making them. Are visual cues, then, what you would use to identify grassland birds?
Similarities of note: in both cultures, “small birds” often were lumped into groups, no matter how pretty and distinctive their songs (or even appearance) might be. Related, hunting was perhaps the most interaction with birds. I was surprised again to find that of the few Arikari words that seemed to reference sound in the species name, they were game birds, and birds you might otherwise describe by visual features (e.g. prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse). Perhaps similarly, these birds also seem to be most commonly featured in ceremonial dancing. Did sound become more important when it indicated a food source you would have to sneak up on to hunt?
I couldn’t have been more excited to stumble upon an etymology source for Indigenous bird names, but as you can see, it (delightfully) left me with more new questions than answers! 🙂
Feld, Steven. “To you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.” Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. 2nd ed., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.