So I've been thinking a lot about the search for a new head of the American Birding Association. I don't have much to say about it at this point, but did have a fun thought: What would it be like if the search were conducted as a reality TV show? What would that look like? What kind of crazy tasks would the contestants be given? How would it all go down, edited for a TV-PG rating of course!?
Back when I was out of town, FM 89.3 in Louisville broadcast a previously taped radio interview I did with them last month. We talked about bird pest control issues and my work with BirdBGone. Lots of fun! Listen here.
This morning I got an urgent appeal from BirdLife International. A massive forest fire on the island of Madeira recently killed a number of the Endangered Zino's Petrel--including several breeding adults and 65% of this year’s (2010) chicks. BirdLife International and SPEA (Birdlife in Portugal) urgently need funds to carry out emergency conservation work needed before the winter sets in.
After working with Ch'orti', Mopan, Kekchi, and Tzutujil Mayan speakers in Guatemala and Belize, Kerry Hull and I decided this year to head over to Mexico to work with the Chontal Mayan speakers in the state of Tabasco. We also spent some time up in the Chiapas Highlands to work with some Chol Mayan speakers, and started working with a few Tzeltal Mayan speakers as well.
We talked to dozens of native speakers and spent time in the field looking for birds, as well as reviewing drawings of birds in field guides and recordings of birds on my iPod. This allowed us to determine the identification of dozens of birds in each language. We also routinely asked about the beliefs involved with each bird, and if they bring messages, since in Mayan communities there are always some birds that foretell good or bad events, or even just periods of rain or drought.
So after two weeks in Mexico, we now have bird data from 7 of the 31 Mayan language groups, including the Ch'orti', Chontal, and Chol languages which are the closest to the language used in writing the Classic Mayan glyphic texts. Our research is showing how important birds are within traditional Mayan cultures, as well as illuminating the meaning of birds appearing in the Classic Mayan texts. We are also making friends in Mayan communities and working with them to preserve the language and lore involving birds. It is an ongoing adventure. You can read about our past adventures in 2006 (scroll down) and 2008, as well as our current adventures in the posts below:
On our second day of field work in Tucta, Tabasco, one of our Chontal friends told us a tradition about taking cuervo (crow) eggs from a nest for good luck. This was a bit puzzling, since there are no "real" crows in southern Mexico. When we asked about these crows, we were told that they were and black and like grackles, only bigger. What could they be?
Later we heard from others that they often go around in groups, and that they hunt for fish along waterways. They fly up into trees, in groups. Still a puzzle.
Then we heard that they actually swim. What? Swimming crows? By asking more questions, we were finally told that crows were very similar to the "pico fino" which we had already determined to be an Anhinga.
That was the missing piece of the puzzle. By asking a few more questions we confirmed that the cuervo (crow) was the Neotropic Cormorant.
So, how did a cormorant become a crow? If all you knew about crows were that they were big and black and fly around in groups (think Hitchcock), you could easily see how these birds could become crows. Especially when you see them sitting together on a bare tree, with their necks hunched in. They do kind of look like grackles--with longish tails, all black. And grackles can stretch out those necks, so that comparison isn't even all that hard to see, from a certain point of view (see for instance here).
At any rate, another cautionary tale about inter-cultural communication. You can never assume that just because you are using the same word, that you are talking about the same thing. Even within the same culture. Follow up questions are key. Even now, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that there is even more to the story of the Chontal Crow, so be prepared for further story installments!
So you are a young kid in Mexico. You like birds. You've got some cool birds flying around your house. So you go to your local library to look for a book about the birds in your yard. What do you find? Probably nothing.
On my recent trip to Mexico I was doing some research in the big city library in Villahermosa, the biggest city in Tabasco. I looked on the shelf for bird books. All they had was one book...on penguins! In their reference section there were three old Time Life books on birds, but nothing that would help the aspiring kid birder identify the birds in his neighborhood!
In the smaller city library in Nacajuca, we were looking for Chontal Mayan texts and I thought I'd take a look at the bird section there.
Here's what I found.
Not a single bird book. Hardly any animal books at all, and those old black books in the middle of the section jump straight from amphibians (anfibios) to mammals (mamiferos).
Hard to get excited about birds if you can't even find a book about them. On the other hand, maybe this is a huge opportunity for the American Birding Association's Birders' Exchange Program. Do we need to get a Spanish language bird field guide into every public library in Latin America?
Is that a vision you can get excited about? Future generations of Latin American birders--and the birds they will save--are at stake!
We spent several hours one morning at the Granja de Tortugas, a turtle rearing facility near Nacajuca. Think fish hatchery but for turtles. Since so many people still eat turtles in coastal Tabasco, many have become endangered, and so the state government raises them for release into protected areas. We had a great tour of the ponds, incubation room, and baby rearing facilities.
These baby turtles were unique in that when they are little they have a Virgin of Guadalupe on their plastron (lower shell). It gets more blurry and less distinct they get older.
Of course since this was a protected area, there were lots of birds at the ponds as well--including nesting Linneated Woodpecker, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and both Ruddy Ground Dove and Plain Ground Dove. Here's a ground dove nest right at waist height in a hedge along a walkway!
We also had several Aztec Parakeets flying around, as well as Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Chontal: mixix). The trees were also filled with iguanas.
After working up in the Chiapas Highlands, we dropped back down to Tabasco for more field work with Chontal speakers near Nacajuca. We got some really great info from some brothers living up near the end of the road in Tecoluta. Then we walked around and watched Snail Kites (Local Spanish: Caracolero) catching snails and flying overhead (close enough to snap this photo with a point and shoot!).
Interestingly, when we had asked several Chontal speakers if there were different kinds of hawks (Chontal: a'i') they said yes, but they didn't have any names for them. They never brought up the Snail Kite once, until we got that local Spanish name and then they all knew the Chontal name for it. Doing ethnoornithological field work, you have to always be on your toes because you don't really know at first how the people you are working with are classifying or seeing the birds. While a Snail Kite might clearly seem like a kind of hawk to us, that apparently wasn't clear initially to our Chontal Mayan friends.
Also, just because birds are colorful and nearby doesn't mean everyone takes notice of them. We had Blue-gray Tanagers hanging out on TV antennas and must be there every day but people hadn't noticed them. And Tropical Kingbirds are literally everywhere, hanging out on wires and in city centers all over the place, but they don't merit much attention or even have their own name in most Mayan languages, including Chontal. On the other hand, if there is some inconspicuous bird with a unique call, it just might turn out to play in important role in their world. You just never know. That's why you have to get out there and spend the time to find out!
BTW, did you notice the dead pigeon hanging from the cheap netting used to try and keep them out of the church tower in the photo at the top of the post? Amazing what we don't notice until it is pointed out to us :-)
While we went to Ocosingo and Tila to work with Chol Mayan speakers, we ran into quite a few local Tzeltal Mayan speakers as well, and spent some time collecting Tzeltal Mayan stories and bird names as well. One of my favorites was an old guy in Ocosingo who told us that drinking hummingbird blood is an effective remedy for warding off heart attacks!
Here we are spending an hour with one Tzeltal Mayan man in our hotel foyer in Tila. Not everyone has a great knowledge of birds--some folks only know maybe 20 common birds or so. In this case, we didn't get a lot of names, but everyone has some story or other that they've picked up along the way, so we always get something good from everyone!
After a five hour bus ride from Villahermosa to Ocosingo, we took a small van and then road in the back of a truck for three more hours up to a Chol Mayan town of Tila in the Chiapas Highlands. Chol is a sister language to Chontal and Ch'orti', which we have worked with before, so we wanted to get bird names and traditional bird stories from this area as well.
We didn't have any contacts in the area, so we started by approaching people in the street and playing bird songs on my iPod and showing them pictures from field guides. At one point we had over 30 Chol speakers gathered around giving us names and info. Luis, a local forest biologist, saw the commotion and came over. Once he figured out what we were up to he was excited and invited us up to that afternoon to the small communities where he works.
We ended up hiking and birding near a little place called Kokija'. Birding highlights included Slate-colored Solitaire, Crimson-collared Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Eleania, and Red-lored Parrot. We spent two days in the area and got dozens of great stories and Chol bird names.
Our Saturday plans fell through so we ended up in Villahermosa for the day. Spent an hour at the La Venta Museum and Park checking out the giant Olmec heads and other famous monuments. Some of these include bird motifs, including possibly Harpy Eagle claws on the helmet of one giant head (you can see the talon tips pointing downward above band over the forehead below).
Here is a piece that has what are claimed to be owl heads on the side.
Olmec art is really amazing, including all kinds of strange images of beings that appear to be half human and half jaguar.
And this interesting piece, apparently unfinished (!) looks to me like what might happen if it had been carved by an Olmec Picasso.
As for real birds, there were a few, the best being a Boat-billed Heron perched high up above a small pond in the park. We didn't even see it there until something dropped down into the water next to us and we looked up and saw it 20 feet up in the tree.
The park also has a zoo with a few local birds including macaws, and my favorite, this King Vulture--a nemesis bird of mine that keeps alluding me on all my trips to Guatemala.
There were some free roaming Howler Monkeys in the park. I wasn't able to get a shot of them, so had to settle for these coatis. They were everywhere.
On our second day in Tucta we connected with Eusebio De La Cruz Hernández, a local school official, and spent the afternoon getting local Chontal Mayan bird names and info, as well as learning a lot more about the local area. Tucta is a small village of just over 1500 people near Nacajuca, about 45 minutes north of Villahermosa. It is mostly savannah, with lots of rivers and flooded areas and scattered trees. There aren't a lot of forests or forest birds around, but lots of herons and egrets and other water birds.
One fun thing we learned was a local tradition that if a baby is colicky and won't stop crying, you can take a hummingbird nest and burn it as incense all around the baby and that will cure it. We also heard a local tradition about crows--but more on that later!
Eusebio also showed us his traditional drums and masks used in Chontal traditional dances. Great info and thanks to Eusebio we made more contacts for our work in the area.
In order to find some Chontal Mayan speakers to work with, we had to take a bus out to Nacajuca, and then a taxi or smaller van out to some of the Mayan towns nearby. Our first stop was Tucta, to look up a Chontal guy who was listed in a Mexican publication. As we get off the bus, we find this interesting sign.
Turns out the government had done a big development project in the early 80s, and dug out 30 some canals in order to create farm gardens in the savannah near Tucta. Our possible ethnographic informant wasn't available, but his brother and son took us for a walk through the area.
We were able to get some good Chontal bird names while walking around, and saw some fun birds including Yucatan Jays (including the white-bodied juvenile birds that turn black over the next month or so), Pinnated Bittern, Hook-billed Kite, and Roadside Hawk.
Perhaps the most common bird was Northern Jacana (Chontal: ch'ich'ip, Local Spanish: pispita). We saw them in almost all the canals, including pairs trailed by young chicks. Unfortunately, all I had was my point and shoot and binoculars, so had to settle for some bad digibined shots (baby is the light colored spot behind the adult). BTW, this is an excellent example of how the Spanish bird names in most of the bird books may not help you in dealing with local people--who don't know the "correct" names of birds, but may very well know the birds by their own local names.
Once upon a time the local community wanted to build a tourist facility here, which would include some ecotours of the area. So far that hasn't really happened, but it is an interesting spot and somewhere, under all the water hyacinths, there are even some Manatis swimming around in there!
With one day to spend in Merida before catching a bus down to Villahermosa, we took a shuttle bus out to the Mayan ruins at Kabah and Uxmal. By the time you can get there, and the ruins open, it is already hot, so birding was a bit tough, but lots of cool stuff anyway. The most visible birds at Kabah are hundreds of Cave Swallows nesting in the ruins. Yucatan Woodpecker, Rose-throated Becard, and Blue-crowned Motmot were some of the more fun birds there.
At Uxmal, several Vaux's Swifts were flying overhead with the Cave Swallows. Yellow-faced Grassquits, Tropical Mockingbirds, and Black-headed Saltators were flying around, and Bronzed Cowbirds were marching across the ground in the shade. It was probably pushing 100 degrees and very humid, so birding was a bit tough--next time would be good to have our own car so we can at least drive out there early in the morning and bird the area nearby before the ruins open.
Of course the high point of the visit wasn't live birds, but Itzamna, the bird masked principle Mayan deity. Lots of Itzamna masks all over, especially at Kabah.
This bird face mask is interesting--the two tufts above bring to mind Great Horned Owl, but perhaps also Harpy Eagle?
These are more Itzamna bird masks, the curving thing is a nose/beak (top one is broken), with eye to the side, and mouth below.