Characters - Jamaica's
Dr. Rebecca Tortello
of Frank Bernal: Painting by Frank Bernal,
taken from his book 'The Birds of Jamaica'. This beautifully illustrated
book is available in bookstores islandwide.
Bud a cunny bud, hard bud fe dead'
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.
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).
times it came close to me, as I sat motionless
and holding my breath for fear of alarming it, and driving it away...'
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).
IMAGERY IN FOLKLORE
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.
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
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.
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
'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.
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
May 3: The
series explores the postage stamps of Jamaica.
|Feedback To the Series
an absolutely fantastic series. It is critical that we preserve these
for the long term as well as continuing to share with upcoming generations
so that they can understand and feel connected to the past and that it
continues to have some relevance to their future." - Peter,
was heartfelt. I moved away from my home country, Jamaica, as a little
girl and have missed out on some of the history that I was to have learned"
- Cadiehead, Jamaica.
"My son is
now learning a great deal about the history of his parents homeland. Please
continue with this fantastic educational site." - Sonia ,
"Keep up the
good works. It's important that these events and people are chronicled,
so that history doesn't die, or get misinterpeted. Remember no history,
no future." - Fabian, Canada.
touching I yet again applaud at how much exposed Jamaica is. Keep writing
these articles they are they main reason I read the newsletters (Go-jamaica)."
- Georgia, USA
are great. I remember growing in Jamaica and hearing my grandmother using
some of them." - Richard, Puerto Rico.
these proverbs are very, very good especially for me who always like my
roots and culture so much. Indeed I appreciate things of like this that
not only educate but keeps one in line with their past. Once again thank
to you all for this great effort. Now I know where to procure educative
information. I am really impressed. Go my Jamaica. " - Motumbo,
First 500 years in Jamaica
taking you for a stroll down memory lane for the next six
months. Along this journey,we will relive several events which
significantly impacted on the social, political and economic
development of Jamaica. As we travel share your experience
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of the Past,
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