Perceptions of birds

Winged creatures in science, legend and folklore


Text and photographs Nicolette Forbes

Humans have had a multidimensional relationship with birds through the ages in literature and legend, as food, guard dogs (geese and peacocks), carrying messages (passenger pigeons), sport (hunting), decoration (feathers), agriculture (guano mining and pest extermination) and pets. Bird fables feature in all the world’s major religions and belief systems, and in secular works right up to today. Through folklore, you are able to gain insight not only into the social and political fabric of a country, but the natural environment as well, as seen in some of the bird tales which are detailed below.

Legend has it that storks bring babies, doves peace, crows are harbingers of evil, vultures rapacious, while across the world, eagles are symbols of power. Since early times, birds been such a source of fascination that successive cultures have developed their own avian myths and legends, and conferred on their native species human and often superhuman traits. Some stories are easily understood and often colours guide thinking while nocturnal activity was associated with death. In this article we explore some of these stories and how they have changed or shaped our perceptions of birds.

A vintage colour illustration from the early 20th century reflecting the popular and ancient myth that the stork brought newborn babies.


The study of birds has contributed much to both the theoretical and practical aspects of biology. Charles Darwin’s studies of the Galapagos finches and other birds during the voyage of HMS Beagle were important in his formulation of the idea of the origin of species through natural selection. Charles Darwin, one of the most famous and well-known names in science, spent four years circumnavigating the globe on the sailing ship, Beagle between 1830 and 1834. During this time he crystallised his ideas on natural selection and evolution. Being aware of what the social impact of this revolutionary idea would be on entrenched beliefs he procrastinated until 1859 and was nearly upstaged by Alfred Wallace who had developed very similar ideas based on his stays in Indonesia.

Charles Darwin’s study of the Galapagos finches framed his ideas of natural selection and the origin of species.

The furore following the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species was accompanied by demands for the demonstration of ‘missing links’ which could show the relationship between different species or groups of species.

Enter Archaeopteryx lithographica (which translates as the ancient wing from the slate beds) discovered in 1860. Here was an ancient ‘bird’. It had feathers which only birds have although we do know now from more recently discovered fossils that there were also small dinosaurs that had feathers but this does not distract from the argument. This “bird” also had teeth and a long bony tail with many vertebrae which would make it a reptile. So here was a half-half animal which could not have been better qualified to demonstrate links between reptiles and birds. As mentioned above we now have many more fossils whose feathers in life would have contributed to insulation, courtship and mating display and ultimately the conquest of the air that we understand today.

Archeopteryx lithographica fossil showing its features which make it a reptile to bird bridge

Photo: James L. Amos/Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0 

Local birds and stories

Hamerkop or uThekwane

The Hamerkop or uThekwane is a fascinating bird. Placed in its own family because it is so distinct from other bird species and are striking birds in looks and behaviour. They feature strongly in African folklore as a bird of omen. Sometimes a good omen, sometimes bad but also with strong story narratives. If it lands on a home and calls it is considered to be a sign of bad luck or death. There are many beautiful songs which flatter this bird and ask it to go away peacefully in different African cultures. It is taboo to harm a hamerkop or destroy its nest because this will bring bad luck to the family or household. The nest itself is likely part of the reason for the stories that have developed around the bird. Made of a collection of sticks and branches and with the entrance and inner walls plastered smoothly with mud they are complex and take the birds around six weeks to build. Large structures, these nests can be in excess of 50kg and may even be decorated with artefacts or ornaments – an interesting anecdote from the Londolozi blog reveals that from one nest over 200 items of human origin were recovered – a pan brush, a cassette tape, a glove, a plastic dish and cup, two peacock feathers, chicken feather, two socks, rabbit fur, 45 rags, four corn cobs, a piece of glass, four bits of wire, a comb, one pair of underpants, typewriter ribbon, a piece of leather belt, four bits of stocking, two bits of tin, two bits of foam, some rubber, seven bits of hosepipe, nine bits of plastic electrical piping, six bits of asbestos roofing, 11 bones, 12 pieces of sandpaper, four lengths of insulation tape, ten plastic bags, nine pieces of paper, 56 scraps of tinfoil, six bicycle tyres and six lengths of insulating wire.

A moment between friends? Or is he eyeing the rhino horn as a possible nest artefact

So there is a widespread belief amongst Zulu and Ndebele peoples that it is also the symbol of pride and vanity. It is said that this bird is proud of its feathers and that it is always well groomed, making sure that there are no lice or fleas amongst its feathers. Linked to the stories of vanity and hubris is one such song called Thekwane by Ladysmith Black Mambazo which describes this bird’s vanity and habit of apparently staring and admiring its reflection in the water. The story of the song as told by the artists…
We have this peculiar bird that calls himself Thekwane – the hammerhead bird
And is he funny!
He is very dark brown about the size of a little chicken
With a tuft of feathers at the back of his head
and he has legs so skinny you can hardly believe that they keep his body upright
and of course his head looks like a very strange hammer
But the funniest thing about Thekwane is how beautiful he thinks he is
He loves himself so much that we always find him standing next to still waters gazing at his reflection
He never seems to get tired of looking at himself and this is what the song is about.

Listen to the song here –

Watching hamerkops hunting and interacting at a waterbody can be hugely entertaining and reveals a lot about their alert and clever character.

Despite its plain brown plumage this bird’s looks are underrated. Its rich chocolate tones and striking appearance make its reputation in folklore as vain completely understandable.

Burchell’s Coucal or ufukwe

Many people are aware of the nickname for the Buchell’s Coucal as the ‘rainbird’ and a widely held belief holds that the call of this bird presages rain. Even amongst the noise of our urban environments this is a call that stands out. A bubbling rich baritone which seems unhurried and unperturbed by the chaos around it. A common visitor in suitably vegetated urban areas this is a gardener’s friend eating other animals that tend to be seen as garden pests such as snails. They are also very opportunistic and as carnivores will raid other birds’ nests for eggs and fledglings. They are a member of the cuckoo family but do not parasitise other species preferring to keep its young close. They are very dedicated mates as well as parents, mating for life, and courtship is repeated each season.

Even in India coucals are birds of good omen and seeing one before a journey is believed to bring safety and good luck to the trip. This has saved these birds from being hunted or harassed in India making the Southern Coucal or Crow Pheasant a common sight in urban areas. In parts of Thailand the opposite is true and coucals are believed to bring bad luck making it an unpopular bird often with dire consequences for local populations.

The wonderful bubbling rich baritone call of this bird is one of the delightful soundtracks of KZN

Fish Eagle or inkwazi

In Celtic mythology, eagles are traditionally seen as one of the oldest of all creatures, surpassed only by the salmon in wisdom and age. An old Manx name for the eagle is Drein or the Druid’s bird, giving them status as king of the birds. However, a tale from the Western Highlands tells a different story. All the birds of the air held a contest for sovereignty, deciding to settle it by seeing who could fly the highest. Just when the eagle, almost predictably, declared his triumph, the tiny wren popped out from its hiding place among the eagle’s feathers and flew that bit higher and won the contest. The Druids held only the wren in greater esteem than the eagle for its shrewdness and cunning!

Our much loved African Fish Eagle or inkwazi is a symbol of hope and freedom on the African continent and is the national bird of four countries, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Namibia. Its scientific name indicates that it is a close relative of the American Bald Eagle – both in the genus Haliæetus (meaning sea eagle from Haliætos in Ancient Greek) and François Levaillant coined its appropriate species name vocifer or ‘vociferous one’ as an obvious tribute to its frequent and loud call.

Equally at home along the coast or in estuaries as well as farm dams, urban dams and water bodies this is a species which can be seen, and as the name implies heard, relatively frequently in our urban areas, green spaces and surrounding rural fringes. Despite its power and regal bearing it is a kleptoparasite, saving time and energy by resorting to bullying other birds and stealing their catches, such as saddle-billed storks, goliath herons or even other smaller raptors. Doing much better on the romantic front, the African fish eagle displays far better morals than they might when feeding for they are monogamous and mate for life, and may remain in the same area for many years.

A majestic African Fish Eagle, in looks and call a powerful icon of Africa

A large bird and widespread across South Africa being found wherever open water with appropriate food resources exists.

Crested Guineafowl or inpangele

Impangel’ enhle ngekhal’ igijima. (ZULU PROVERB)
The wise guineafowl is the one that cries when it runs away. A guineafowl will not be saved from danger just by crying. It is better for the bird to cry and run away at the same time.

Before industry, before science, before writing, there was knowledge born from first-hand witnesses of simple cause and effect over generations. Mothers watched their mothers and brought the lessons down to their daughters. In serious and solemn tones they would say, “Inpangela are gifted with powers from the gods to protect us and our chickens from disease.” How can this be related to the life lesson which is indicated by this? Guineafowl eat bugs, ticks, parasites, and all manner of sickness-carrying parasites. Their magic power for healing is born from their industry and hard work. The mothers did not know this, they only saw the effect and accepted it as true. After witnessing through clear observation, the women observed that when a land lost its fertility, the guineafowl would be the first to move away. Following them, the villagers would find fresh areas to plant their small crops and fresh forests to gather their meat and herbs. Today it is not always possible to move our homes to new areas, so we must observe and be like the inpangela: vigilant and keeping our land healthy and protected.

Crested guineafowl have a delightful curled and plumed toupee making them instantly lovable.

Resident birds preferring the edges of forest and woodland habitats These secretive and busy birds are often overlooked resulting in their distribution being underestimated.

Barn Swallows

Swallows in general are seen as heralds of spring and summer. This is true for barn swallows at each end of their migration routes. The arrive in the Northern Hemisphere to breed for the onset of spring and summer and then return to us here in Africa for our austral spring and summer to feast on the bounty provided by African grassland and savannah habitats. It is the subject of many cultural references and features prominently in literary works and songs. The barn swallow features in T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land and several Shakespearean plays. It is also a major character in Oscar Wilde’s fiction, The Happy Prince. It is unsurprising that they feature in the legends, fables and cultural material of many lands as they have overall, one of the widest ranges of all bird species. The barn swallow is also the national bird of Estonia and Austria and is one of the most often depicted birds on postage stamps from around the world.

Barn Swallows arrive in early spring as young adults that are going to return to the northern hemisphere for their first breeding season.

In some cases the swallows who have been raised during their first summer in Europe can be seen as they arrive after their first migration.

Sailors are known to have tattoos of barn swallows as they are seen as lucky charms for safe return, and they also symbolize the long distances they travel. This is echoed in praise poetry of the Zulu people who describe swallows as inkonjani and liken them to the great ships of the ocean which can only otherwise be crossed by swallows and abelungu. A widespread belief, found to be common to western and African traditional beliefs is that which relates to the nesting of swallows under the eaves. This is a good omen bringing peace and luck to a home but this would only relate the breeding migrants such as Lesser Striped Swallow.

Lost relationships

While it can be disturbing to see that arbitrary human assignments of creatures into omens good or bad can determine the fate of a species, it is equally important that the local legends, tales and knowledge about birds are not just stories to be dismissed. As we lose this knowledge and understanding we lose more than just some general knowledge. This is indicated by one study which discovered that 78 birds in England were once graced with more than 7,000 folk names. The loss of those names often takes with it common local knowledge about biology and behaviour. Michel Desfayes, a Swiss linguist and amateur naturalist has gathered, over seven decades, more than 100,000 folk names for 600 species of birds throughout Europe, in many different languages. Every valley once had its own name for the same birds which says a huge amount about how people related to birds across Europe for thousands of years.

As these natural experiences dwindle an emotional investment in protecting nature is lost – that may be part of why birds are in steep decline. This really signifies the loss of our relationships with nature and is a worldwide cultural trend. When you say to people that a bird population has declined by 70% they don’t relate or care because they often didn’t know the species existed until the moment they are told that it is disappearing. However many can relate to folk stories and knowledge and once the experience becomes real and they see birds interacting and behaving in the natural environment and perhaps even touch or hold one it can by a life changing experience which ensures that they start to care.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Nicolette Forbes was born in Durban and is passionate about all things KZN and its environments. With an interest in all things living from a young age it was no surprise that her chosen career path ended with her becoming a professional biologist having studied biological sciences at the University of Natal, Durban (now University of KwaZulu-Natal). Studying was followed by a lecturing stint to both biology and medical students for nine years before leaving the university to put her knowledge into practice with an ecological consultancy specialising in coastal habitat assessments.

Birding has been a passion from her high school days and birdwatching, atlassing. photography and being in the bush are her favourite things. Currently the Chair of BirdLife eThekwini KZN, the club covering the Greater Durban area, Nicolette has also through the non-profit EcoInfo Africa, partnered with Kloof Conservancy to run environmental courses focussed on birds, and these will continue once it is deemed safe to do so.