The stories of enigmatic birds told in indigenous folklore aren’t just fascinating tales, they may be a way to preserve languages and cultures at risk of extinction.
In the farthest reach of the southern cone of South America, along the wind-and-rain-whipped coast of Tierra Del Fuego, the Yaghan people have a story about the Magellanic woodpecker, a big showy bird they call lana.
A boy and his sister were picking red berries away from their village. Attracted to each other, they finally gave in to their desires.
The moment they did they were turned into a male and female woodpecker.
That story was told by Christina Calderon, a 94-year-old woman who is one of 1,600 Yaghan people, but is also the last person for whom Yaghan is their first language.
One effort to preserve her native tongue, and with it the Yaghan perspective on the natural world, is the curation of Calderon’s traditional stories about birds, which offer a glimpse into a very different way of living. In this case it was lesson about a taboo, which could reduce genetic fitness.
“To the Yaghan the birds are companions and teachers,” says Ricardo Rozzi, an ecologist at the University of North Texas and the author of A Multi Ethnic Bird of Sub Antarctic Forests of South America, a combination of scientific data alongside Yaghan bird names and stories. “When you see animals as fellow beings it changes the ethical relationship with the world.”
Global biodiversity is in a free fall. A major UN report last year found that one in four species is imperiled. But the problem is not only an extinction of species – intimate knowledge of the world around us is also disappearing as people reduce their engagement with nature.
Ethno-ornithology, a tiny discipline, came about when ornithologists studying tribes realised that these cultures related to birds in vastly different ways than our own and in studying biology they were getting only a small, distorted picture of a rich, ancient and holistic relationship that had evolved over thousands of years.
Capitalising on the charisma of birds, their transcendental appeal and the pervasive role they play in thousands of cultures around the world, a small cadre of researchers is documenting not only bird stories but the perspectives they provide before they slip from memory.
The preservation effort has received a high-tech boost from the recent launch of the Ethnoornithology World Atlas, an online repository that is a collaboration between BirdLife International and the University of Oxford that allows ornithologists, indigenous people, anthropologists, biologists and others who want to preserve indigenous knowledge, to upload video interviews, reports, photos and other material.
“Everything has been driving indigenous cultures toward a global culture which doesn’t really value them,” says Andrew Gosler, a professor of ornithology at the University of Oxford and the research director of EWA. “So, we hope to provide something that will help affirm the importance of local knowledge and local languages, and local customs and cultures which are connected with the local environment.”
Now, because many of the dwindling languages and customs are held by a handful of ageing tribal members, Covid-19 is accelerating their disappearance. The virus is ravaging the nation of Brazil, for example, but the mortality rate is twice as high for indigenous people in the Amazon. The Munduruku people, according to the Guardian, have lost 10 “wise ones”, described as living libraries by a tribal leader.