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Here’s to all the fine feathers

Here’s to all the fine feathers

From the archive of Peter Millin

Fertilizing our world

Rumours abound where birds are concerned.

For instance, the word for bird in Zulu is ingonyi, while the Sesotho  and Tswana call it ngonyani. Translating directly into the English and you arrive at fattening! How do we bring bird and fat together? Apparently, people believed that migrating birds brought fertility to the land. Therefore, a bird is called a fertilizer/fattener of the earth. Something not to be lost.

Several tribes, like the Batswana and the Ba-Pedi guarded their birds zealously. For instance, it was forbidden to fell a mosu tree (umbrella thorn/Acacia torti/is) because these are the trees upon whose branches migratory birds rest. Time and again, these tribes would press upon its people that if you kill a tree, you kill a bird. In Setswana they say, setklara seswala kinyona, and in Zulu ummuthi uzalwanyone both of which mean the tree is given birth to by the bird.  Where did this come from? They saw that when birds from far away rest on the branches of the bigger trees, eventually strange trees will be growing at the feet of these trees from seeds excreted by the migratory birds. The Bakgatla tribes have a proverb that says if you shave the great earth mother’s green hair she will loose her feathered lice, meaning, if you destroy the trees, birds will no longer come to bring fertility.


Another myth is that birds are the souls of humans who have reached perfection. After seven reincarnations on Earth the gods elevate one to the state of a bird, the freest creature of creation.

The hunting of birds was restricted to no more than what you need to eat. One guinea-fowl a day was the limit and no one was allowed to hunt every day either which explains why the meat was dried. It had to last for days. Also, to break the eggs of a bird classified as a terrible sin which will result in a curse of bad luck for at least seven years on the perpetrator and his family.

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