Bird book breaks new ground, Newsline

Durban – A combination of conservation, linguistics and culture resulted in a just-released book on birds of the province.

A passionate birder and honorary research professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Noleen Turner, in collaboration with Professor Adrian Koopman and Roger Porter, and working with 18 mother-tongue isiZulu-speaking experts on a seven-year project spearheaded the book Birds of KwaZulu-Natal and their Zulu Names.

Turner is also a published author and was Associate Professor in Zulu Language and Culture, teaching isiZulu for 32 years at UKZN.

Speaking to the Independent on Saturday this week, Turner said the book, described as “groundbreaking”, is the first practical, fully illustrated bird field guide to provide not only individual isiZulu names of 550 species, but to explain the derivation and meaning of these names.

She said the intention of this project was to inspire among Zulu people a greater interest, awareness, and knowledge of the avifaunal (birds in a particular region) heritage of KwaZulu-Natal.

Bird book breaks new ground, Newsline
Veteran bird guide Sakhamuzi Mhlongo, part of the team behind the new book Birds of KwaZulu-Natal and their Zulu Names, is known for finding ‘the specials’ or rare birds in forest habitats around the province.

“A primary motivation in this project was linked to conservation. The integration of indigenous knowledge systems with Western knowledge paradigms is of paramount importance because certain traditional beliefs in KwaZulu-Natal are counter-productive to modern conservation practices.

“This represents a fundamental shift from traditional conservation practices to a more holistic integrated natural and cultural heritage management approach. It includes not only the management of biodiversity, but also the pursuit of ‘social ecology’, the long neglected but crucial ‘people’ aspect in conservation,” said Turner.

She said when it came to isiZulu names for birds, they had “to fill in gaps” and, of the 550 species analysed, some were confirmation of well-known names such as inkwazi for the fish eagle; some were selected from the most commonly known name such as inkanakane and ihahane for the hadeda ibis, with inkankane selected.

Some names were redirected: the name for the brown-hooded kingfisher, indwazela, was redirected as the generic name for all kingfishers (ndwaza refers to a motionless position waiting for prey).

Some new names were coined based on appearance, calls, behaviour and/or distribution, such as isankawu (sounds like a vervet monkey) for the southern pochard, or umacutha derived from Zulu verb ukucutha (meaning to draw the body tense) as the generic name for herons, which describes the bird’s behaviour before it lunges at prey.

“We believe if you can’t name or identify a bird, you can’t conserve it.

“The aim is to get this book into the hands of as many isiZulu-speaking bird guides, safari guides, educators and members of the public interested in birds as possible, so the isiZulu bird names can be widely disseminated and not lost. The ultimate goal would be to see this project adopted, not only in other parts of Southern Africa in the other indigenous language groups, but in other countries that have a dearth of bird names in their own vernacular languages,” said Turner, adding that few places in the world have bird names in indigenous languages.

Sakhamuzi Mhlongo, a guide for 20 years, who gained his accreditation from BirdLife SA in 2005, was part of the team for the new book.

His love for birds started when he was a child in his home village of Nyoni (ironically, bird in isiZulu).

He said this week: “It’s important we preserve our indigenous languages. There are few Africans into birding and I can understand that as there are not many books on birds in the language they speak. I believe this book will help young Africans to understand birds and their habitat and, who knows, maybe choose birding as a career.

“I grew up in Nyoni next to a nature reserve and I didn’t have a PlayStation for games, so I spent my time in the reserve and became familiar with birds and their calls.”

Mhlongo said KwaZulu-Natal was “rich in bird diversity, we have more than 600 bird species, with most of those birds being found in forest habitat, which is challenging for birding, so you need to be good with your bird sounds or calls.

“My office is the forest surrounded by special birds and I love my office,” he said.

The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund has published the book, which is available for R250 at good book stores or through Jacana Media at

The Independent on Saturday