Seen any cuckoos this month?
Particularly the Jacobin cuckoo.
Whether you did, or not, you should by now have sown your field, whether they be in your gardens, on your verges and traffic islands or in your pot plants.
Traditionally the appearance of the migratory Jacobin cuckoo, known as inkanku to isiZulu speakers, is a sign to get sowing.
The lunar month of October, called uMfumfu in isiZulu, has the alternative name of inkanku, according to Adrian Koopman’s book Zulu Bird Names and Bird Lore.
The book is a treasure chest of avian tales about birds from the omnipresent hadeda to the more elusive narina trogon.
The hadeda ‒ inkankane ‒ takes its isiZulu name from the nasal quality of its call, amankanka meaning nasal passages. It’s also described as a “good luck bird”. But don’t dare mock it “because a person who mocks them will break out in abscesses”.
While noting that the narina trogon’s isiZulu name is umjenenengu, Koopman turns to the beautifully-coloured bird’s name in Tanzania, mwalabu, which is derived from Arabic.
“In Tanzania it is the Arabs that wear the most beautiful robes,” the book explains.
Then there’s the bateleur, known in isiZulu as either ingqungqulu or idlamadoda, meaning “(the bird) that eats men”, a reference to its eating of corpses on the battlefield.
A raptor associated with something more pleasant is the yellow-billed kite, the nhloile. It’s a tooth fairy.
There’s a belief around which is that if a child has shed a tooth, it will soon get a new one if he, or she, throws it away backwards between their legs and calls to the bird: “Nhloile, nhloile, take my tooth and give me a new one.”
Birds have also given names to places in isiZulu, such as the iZinkwazi River on the KZN North Coast, named after the word for African fish eagles.
And if you take a trip into KwaMashu’s J Section, it could be no surprise that it’s also called eZinyonini (among the birds). Street names include those of a dozen birds.
- Zulu Bird Names and Bird Lore
The Independent on Saturday