Report #2: The Enchanting Tale of the Whydah Bird Tail
By Justin Nobel, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student
Sending a postcard home from Sauri requires four cinnamon-chested bee-eaters and one African fish eagle. Birds are popular in Kenya and their images are ubiquitous. Different species are featured on ten- and five-shilling stamps, appear in cell-phone advertisements and grace tourism posters in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Here in Sauri, the equatorial village in western Kenya where I’m researching avian diversity this summer, birds are sometimes despised and often eaten, but occasionally revered.
Benjamin Okalo, a freelance naturalist and bird expert who has also assisted scientists studying collobus monkeys, army ants and butterflies, is helping me with my research. Each morning Benjamin and I walk several kilometers on paths muddied from the night’s rain as a rising sun peaks through maize tassels. We are often joined by children in bright blue sweaters on their way to school. Using a GPS, I guide the two of us to my survey points, which are randomly distributed across the village and often in marshy thickets or between rows of maize. Once on-site we stand still for twenty minutes and record any birds we see within a twenty-five meter radius.
The morning air is a cacophony of bird noise, and Benjamin helps me distinguish individual species birds by their unique calls. The white-browed coucal sounds like water being poured from a jug. The red-eyed dove seems to be cooing "I-am-the-red-eyed-dove, I-am-the-red-eyed-dove." The Hadada ibis makes a raucous "HAAA." The yellow-throated leaf-love sounds like children laughing in the trees.
Birds generally take cover during the hot midday hours, so Benjamin and I spend afternoons talking to villagers about their knowledge of local species. Several old men we spoke to recently lamented the loss of forest birds like the great blue turaco and giant kingfisher. They also turned out to be a valuable source of bird folklore.
For example, many people believe if you tie a rope to the leg of a white-browed coucal chick, the mother bird will pick up a twig and use it to snap the rope to free its young. This now-magical twig will open locked doors and protect a person from wild animals and thieves.
The male whydah bird uses its long tail feathers to attract females the longer his tail the more likely he is to find a mate. Young men in the village have also been known to flash wydah feathers in front of a woman, feed a woman roasted whydah or apply a powder of dried wydah to their hands before greeting a woman in order to increase their own chances of finding a mate.
A salve of dried, crushed pygmy kingfisher applied to the back of a teething child's neck will allow the child to sleep; and roasted cardinal woodpecker fed to a sick cow will make it produce milk. A swallow entering the home of a barren woman will help her conceive, and anyone who kills the friendly African pied wagtail will be visited in the night by the bird's kin, who will then burn the person's house down.
Yet the stories are not known by everyone in the village. When I recently asked for whydah bird at the local market to find out if the folklore translated into a thriving trade, I was referred to a man selling chickens. “Chicken is good meat!” the vendor replied, possibly oblivious to wydah's other, more potent uses.