For the Birds: Ubani igama lakho?

NELSON Mandela once said, "If you speak to an African in English, you'll get into his head. But, if you speak to him in his own language, you'll get into his heart."

That quote proved true when I told Zwane, our iMfolosi trail guide, the Zulus’ name for the Gymnogene/Harrier Hawk (Roberts 169). Literally translated, it means “the bird that has sex with trees.” (A very rude word – Roberts has no record of it!).

The description is apt, as it defines the bird’s feeding action of raiding woodpecker and barbet nests, hanging on to a tree with one talon, and digging in a nest hole with the other. Later, Zwane went out of his way to please us, showing us a hyena lair which was out of bounds to trailists. When I see him, he wags his finger, and still laughs about the harrier’s Zulu depiction.

Surprisingly, most Zulu guides use the English bird names, but they’re enjoying an isiZulu bird list I managed to locate from WESSA for them. Another bird named after its habit of ‘running’ away through the treetops, is iGwalagwala (coward), the Purplecrested Turaco/Loerie (Roberts 371).

Many other KZN birds are named after their calls, such as isiNkhulukhulu – Black Collared Barbet (Roberts 464); isiKhwehle – Crested Francolin (Roberts 189); iNkankane – Hadeda Ibis (Roberts 94), which are all onomatopoeic (surfers, get your dictionaries out). iNhlekhabafazi (the laughter of women) describes the call of the Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Roberts 452) to a T.

I recently learned that the Glossy Starling (Roberts 764) is an iKhwezi in isiZulu, which means ‘morning star’, obviously illustrating its bright golden eye on a dark shimmering background. The Zulu language is certainly one of sights and sounds!

Last week, my wife told me my teeth were like stars. I was quite touched, until she said it was because they came out at night. I have no idea why I told you this, but it might explain why I spend so much time birdwatching.

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