Indigenous Bird Naming

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! 🙂

Literature Cited

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.

6 thoughts on “Indigenous Bird Naming

    1. Hi JD, thanks much for your interest! Do you have a WordPress account? If so, when logged in, you can open my site and click on the “Reader” in the upper left. Then you’ll have a menu that says “Followed Sites” accompanied by a “Manage” button. If you click there, you can add me to your followed sites, and set your settings accordingly to either receive email updates for followed sites or just follow them in the reader.

      Otherwise, I just set up a mail chimp account and added an email signup box to the lower right of my main homepage. I’m still testing how that works and formatting emails to subscribers, so stay tuned and also feel free to subscribe there. Now that I know people are actually reading this site (I’m flattered! 🙂 ) I’ll be sure to keep unfinished posts in draft version until they’re something someone might like to read in their inbox (so e.g. no “junk” to subscribers’ emails of unfinished posts I used to publish here from time to time as placeholders to flesh out later).

      If you’d like to specifically follow only the roots of bird naming topic, I started a new tag, “etymology”:
      You can subscribe to the tag via a feed reader, and I’d also like to up my email list game by allowing people to subscribe to specific topics if they like. I’d love to hear back from you too (and any readers checking out this thread): what format(s) do you usually use to keep up with blogs or topics therein, if any? I’d like to make any “post delivery” options available that would be useful. Again, thanks for reading and your interest in keeping up with my writings on this topic!

  1. I’m really interested to follow your research on indigenous bird names. Is there a way to track your progress?

    1. Yikes – I copied the 1st quote here from another blog post and realized the citation at the end was lost; thanks for reading and for the correction, I’ll get my lit cited in shape! 🙂

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