The Biligirirangan Hills (BR Hills) in south east Karnataka are home to the Solega people, and also to over 250 species of birds. In this article, we take a look at their ornithological worldview. But before we start this journey, a small but important point. You might have noticed in this and previous articles written by me that I write “Solega”, and not “Soliga” or “Sholiga” as is commonly used. This is the correct transcription of the name chosen by the people themselves, and it refers to their creation myth about their origins from the sheath of bamboo, or bidiru sole. Here is a clip of a Solega elder stating this that will bring the point home.
My interest in documenting Solega bird names and folklore began in 2005, when I was studying birds for my M.Sc. project in the BR Hills. I was accompanied by Solega field assistants, who have never heard of Salim Ali or Grimmett, et al., and do not know any English common names for birds. So I learnt Solega bird names to be able to talk to them about the birds that we saw every day. And I learnt that some of them feature in their songs and folklore as well. My initial lists were corroborated by a preliminary list of Solega bird names collected by Prashanth NS, a doctor who was based at the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) hospital in the BR Hills, at that time.
Aung Si, a linguist who wanted to study the Solega language for his PhD, arrived at the BR Hills soon after I started my own PhD fieldwork there. My collection of Solega bird names and stories became the starting point of a long and enriching collaboration between the linguist and the ecologist. Aung Si pioneered the documentation and preservation of the Solega language and traditional ecological knowledge, and we continue to collaborate towards this goal.
I am often asked, “How many bird species can the Solega name?” or “How many Solega bird names are there?” Ethno-ornithology is not just about counting bird names, but about documenting the myriad ways in which communities relate to, and interact with their feathered co-habitants.
If the reader is still interested in the list of Solega bird names versus the western (and may I say, colonial) taxonomy of bird names, I would encourage them to take a look at our paper (Agnihotri & Si, 2012). At first glance, it may seem that they tend to have names for birds that are large in size and brightly coloured (and therefore, easily perceived). And perhaps not surprisingly, none of the winter migrants are named. But they also have names for many birds based on just their calls, and many of these are small and plain coloured, or well camouflaged species!
The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to the interesting etymological origins of some of the Solega bird names, and to highlight the important role that birds play in Solega life, myth and culture.
Here are a few examples of Solega bird names that have interesting meanings: Kaana-kathale (“the darkness of the evergreen forest”) for the Black Eagle; Kaana-goravaa (“the herder of the evergreen forest”) for the Malabar Whistling Thrush; Sattuga-baala (“ladle-tail”) for the Asian Paradise Flycatcher; Thale-baasa (“combed head”) for the Brahminy Starling; Aralhakki (“castor bird”) for the Emerald Dove, from its ability to feed on the toxic seeds of the castor or Arale plant (Haralu in Kannada); and Giduga for the Black-shouldered Kite and the Common Kestrel, from their ability to hover in mid-air (here the “d” is retroflexed, like in the Kannada word kaadu for forest, and in the Hindi word sadak, for road).
And then there are some names based on onomatopoeic renditions of the bird’s call, often with a story associated with them. One example is the Kesahakki or Kethanahakki for the Indian Cuckoo. Its call is rendered as Ketha saththa, makka ketto (“Ketha died, his children went bad/destitute”) by the Solega. The call of this species has similar onomatopoeic renditions in several languages, and also indicates the arrival of spring.
Call of the Indian Cuckoo
Similarly, the Puff-throated Babbler’s call (but not the song) is rendered as “Nanna kuso! Nanna kuso!” (“My child! My child!”).
Call of the Puff-throated Babbler
The story goes that a mother and her child were walking in the forest, and were very thirsty. Finally, they came to a stream, but the mother hurried ahead to drink first, leaving her infant behind and it died of thirst. Grief stricken, she turned into a bird that calls out for her child till today. Curiously, the Solega do not have a name for this bird, but are familiar with its call and the story.
Several birds feature in the Solega song cycles performed during their harvest festival, or rotti habba. Swallows, or Mann-hakki (“mud-bird”), feature in the Gorukaana song cycle, which recognises that these birds make their nests with mud.
An excerpt from the Gorukaana song
The Kotrole (Red-vented Bulbul), the Sore (Spotted Dove), the Kogile (Asian Koel) and the Navilu (Indian Peafowl) have entire stanzas devoted to each during the extensive, dusk to dawn Haduke song cycle.
Woodpeckers hold a special significance in Solega life as their calls are believed to be portents that signal the presence or absence of a dangerous animal, or a death in the community. Woodpeckers are called Marakutuka, but also as Kaari hakki, or even Sivana hakki, and these include the calls of Flameback woodpeckers, and interestingly, even the Rufous Woodpecker.
Rufous Woodpecker, indicating the presence of danger
Flameback woodpecker, indicating the presence of danger
Flameback woodpecker, in the absence of danger
Over the years, I have observed that whenever we heard these calls in the forest, my Solega companions would instantly be on the alert, and often made a special call themselves, in return to the woodpecker’s call. This sounds like a click followed by a whistle, and the Solega believe this particular sound has a pacifying or calming influence on the woodpecker.
And as for the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo called Dodda karali – they do not know of its mimicking abilities, but it is referred to as the kolukaara of the birds. Kolukaara (“lathi-bearer”) is a traditional term given to a Solega elder whose job is to maintain peace and order within the community. Racket-tailed Drongos are known to be aggressive birds, often chasing at birds much bigger than themselves such as eagles, and are also known to be regular participants in multi-species gatherings known as mixed hunting parties or mixed species flocks. The kolukaara term is most definitely based on these behavioural and ecological traits. They also say that the Dodda karali takes a bribe of one feather from each bird in return for its security services!
Traditional knowledge systems are at best ignored, or at worst, at the risk of being extinguished, by western science, which has now become synonymous with mainstream education as well. Our grandparents’ generation perhaps held on to some of this knowledge, but our increasing disconnect from natural spaces has ensured that this was not passed on to the current generation. The few other ethno-ornithological studies from India include Dr Anvita Abbi and her colleagues’ work on the Great Andamanese, and recently, Nitya Mohanty and Rohit Chakravarty’s study of Karen and Ranchi ethno-ornithology from the Andaman Islands. Here’s something to ponder over: how many bird names can you recall in your mother tongue?
Agnihotri, S., & Si, A. (2012). Solega ethno-ornithology. Journal of Ethnobiology, 32(2), 185-212.
Pande, S., Abbi, A., Sant, N., & Pednekar, S. (2011). Ethno-ornithology: Birds of the Great Andamanese: Names, Classification and Culture. Ela Foundation.
Mohanty, N. P., & Chakravarty, R. (2018). Ethno-ornithology of Karen and Ranchi inhabitants of the Andaman Islands: An annotated checklist of local names and etymology. Indian Birds, 14 (3), 73 -78