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Colourful Characters - Jamaica's Birds

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

Courtesy of Frank Bernal: Painting by Frank Bernal, taken from his book 'The Birds of Jamaica'. This beautifully illustrated book is available in bookstores islandwide.

'Doctor Bud a cunny bud, hard bud fe dead'
Jamaican folk song.

IN JAMAICA, many birds, like the Doctor Bird, are endowed with spiritual significance. Many, like the owl, are considered symbols of the dead as well as messengers between spirit worlds. The Tainos, the first Jamaicans, who used bird feathers in ceremonial headdress and body decorations, called the doctor bird the 'God' bird, because they considered it to be the reincarnation of dead souls. Jamaica's national bird, and a species of hummingbird, is only found in Jamaica. There are two types ­ the black billed, found in the east, and the red-billed, found islandwide.

The species is aptly named as a result of its ability to fly backwards producing a humming sound from the rapid fluttering of their wings. The Doctor Bird (or streamer-tail, swallow-streamer, scissors-tail or Trochihlus polytmus) is one of three hummingbird species found on the island. The other two are the mango hummingbird (Anthracothorax mango), which was here before the mango itself arrived and is a dusky purple colour, and the vervain or bee hummingbird (Mellisusga minima), which next to the Cuban Calypte, is the smallest bird in the world. All hummingbrids seem to favour the colour red, hence their red syrup filled feeders.

The Doctor Bird, however, is the most interesting, not only because it is the island's national bird. Iridescent like all hummingbirds, there are many stories that explain the naming of the Doctor Bird. One states that it is called doctor because its long black tail (of the adult male) resembles the long black tail coats doctors were known to wear in the past. Another explains that it is called doctor because it gives medicine to the plants when it lances the flowers with its long bill. Yet another explains that is because it is associated with tobacco, a ritual plant also used as medicine by Taino shamans (medicine men).

'Several times it came close to me, as I sat motionless with delight,
and holding my breath for fear of alarming it, and driving it away...'

The great 19th century English Naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, who came to Jamaica in 1844 to collect and paint plants, insects and birds, got his first glimpse of a Doctor Bird while sitting in a calabash tree studying orchids. He described it as the gem of Jamaican ornithology: "Several times it came close to me, as I sat motionless with delight, and holding my breath for fear of alarming it, and driving it away; it seemed almost worth a voyage across the sea to behold so radiant a creature in all the wildness of its native freedom" (as quoted in Senior, 2003, p. 238). Gosse returned to the British Museum after having laid a strong foundation for other naturalists to develop Jamaica's natural history. He went on to write a number of books based on his work in Jamaica which was mainly concentrated in the Bluefields area. These include The Birds of Jamaica (1847), Illustrations of the Birds of Jamaica (1949) and A Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica (1851).

Bird imagery is found in many Jamaican folksongs, three of the most popular being "Chichibud-O" which lists a litany of birds, "Yellow Bird" and "If I had the wings of a dove.". They are found in Jamaican proverbs such as "Chicken merry, hawk dah near" (Be vigilant as danger can be found in unexpected places) and "Fool-fool pickney mek fowl get away from him two time" (Never allow yourself to be fooled the same way more than once). Birds also appear in folk tales such as "Bird Cherry Island" where each bird lends Anancy a feather so that he can fly with them to their favourite feeding grounds. Anancy, of course, becomes greedy and the angry birds wind up taking back all the feathers and leaving him.

Birds are named based on the sound of their cries ­ i.e. Gimme-me-bit and John-to-wit. These names are also considered to have literal significance. For example, some say Gimme-me-bit's (also known as Night Hawk) cry is thought to be a demand for payment for getting rid of mosquitoes during the night.

Birds, such as herons, are also thought to be weather indicators. Known to fly before approaching storms, when seen inland far from water, herons are thought to signify rain. Fishermen also study their flight in order to predict good or bad fishing conditions.

Over the years birds and their cries have fascinated and many have been recorded. Their cries have also been given meanings such as those ascribed to the Pea Dove whose voice is thought to say "Mary dead, who kill im?" or "Mary boil brown rice," or for those who are more religious, "Moses preach God word." Some have even taken to transcribing bird dialogue as follows: the female Bald-Pate says: "Sairey coat blue" and the male says: "For true, for true."

In Revival set up (ceremonial) tables contain bread baked in the shape of a bird to indicate the kingdoms to be travelled through on the spiritual journey. In Obeah, bird eggs are also considered sacred. There is the belief that if someone steals an egg he/she will keep stealing until he/she dies. In Myal, like Obeah and Revival, an African-based Jamaican religion, cotton trees were sometimes pelted with eggs as payment to release the spirit. Other birds such as the pelican are connected to Christianity. As a result of its tendency to pluck out its breast to feed its young (it regurgitates its pre-digested food) this bird was felt to be a symbol of self-sacrifice and is associated with Christ. (It is the symbol of the University of the West Indies). The Jamaican tody, (also called robin redbreast), one of few birds that go underground to make its nest, is believed to have gotten its red breast from Christ's crucifixion. A drop of blood is said to have fallen while the bird gazed up at the cross. All five species of tody, terrific diggers that in pairs can dig long, curvy tunnels of at least 60 cm, are found only in the Greater Antilles. They are known for a consistent upward gaze.

Jamaica's bird population contains about 280 species of which 30 are endemic and 19 sub-species are endemic. There are 166 breeding species and over 80 winter visitors since Jamaica lies on one of the main north-south migration routes. The majority of these are winter warblers and shore birds. Smaller numbers visit from the south during the summer to breed in Jamaica. The petchary is a good example. Perhaps one of the most interesting fact about birds in Jamaica is their connection to literary history. In the 1950s when Ian Fleming was living on the island and writing the first of the many spy novels that would make him famous, he searched and searched for a name for his debonair main character. His eyes fell on one of his favourite books entitled "Birds of the West Indies" by orinthologist James Bond and one of the most loved characters in 20th century adventure fiction was born.
FILE: A 'zebra' butterfly found in the forests of the Cockpit Country.

Jamaica has some 134 butterfly and moth species of which 20 are endemic. Like the Doctor Bird, some species of butterflies are found only in Jamaica. The giant swallowtail (Pterorous homerus), is a good example. A dramatic yellow and black, it is considered one of the largest butterflies in the western hemisphere with a 15.2cm wingspan. Its main habitats are the John Crow Mountains and the Cockpit Country. The giant swallowtail also flies very high and is therefore not easily collected. Other well-known butterflies are the small, white (Kricognia lyside) that are often seen swarming lignum vitae trees. Remarkable moths include the hawkmoth (sphingids) that are thought to resemble hummingbirds. It hovers over flowers with a long tongue it keeps coiled in the front of its head when not in use. The most extensive record of Jamaica's butterflies and moths contains over 196 illustrations and was compiled by Lady Edith Blake, the wife of Governor Blake.Lady Blake's collection is now in the British Museum of Natural History.

Sources: Bond, J. (1985). Birds of the West Indies. London: Collins. Robinson, I. (2002) . "Exploring- Philip Gosse's Jamaica," in A tapestry of Jamaica ­ The best of Skywritings. Kingston: Creative Communications, Ltd and Oxford: Macmillan Publishers. pp. 112-114.. Senior. O. (2003). The Encylopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston: Twin Guinep Press.

Coming May 3: The series explores the postage stamps of Jamaica.

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Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
Jamaican Rum - A kill-devil of a drink
Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
Lewis Hutchinson: The Mad Master
A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
Frazier versus Foreman on the Sunshine Island 1973
The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
The Case Of The Shark Papers
Katherine Dunham - Matriarch of Modern Dance
Money - The Roots of Jamaican Currency
Simon Bolivar: El Liberatador
Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs
Recollections of World War II
Place Names - A Window to Jamaica's History & Character: Wnat's In A Name?
The History Of Spanish Town
A Cultural Explication Of Empire: Lady Nugent's Journal
The History Of Falmouth: Boom Town Of The 19th Century
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
Colourful Characters - Jamaican Birds
The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
In this place dwelt Horatio Nelson
Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
Somewhere beyond the sea
A fascination with football
Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
A Time to Die Death rituals
Deadly superstitions

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The First 500 years in Jamaica

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted April 05, 2004.
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