Birds

Kala­hari kori, Namibia in 1955, su­per he­roes of the desert and a lion-jackal stand-off.

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BIRDS • BACK IN THE DAY • KIDS’ PAGE • WITH MY OWN EYES • COL­UMN • CROSSWORD

KING KORI OF THE KALA­HARI Whether they are con­scious of it or not, bird­ers have a fierce fas­ci­na­tion with et­y­mol­ogy. The study of the mean­ing and ori­gin of words plays an Os­car-win­ning sup­port­ing role in our hobby. The main plot line, of course, is to iden­tify the species: call­ing it by its cor­rect name. But what does that name mean, and what are its roots? There is a whole sec­tion of my book­shelf ded­i­cated to tomes that delve into birdthemed Latin and Greek. Then there are the Afrikaans names, and the names in other African lan­guages. The English names are the least re­li­able of all – they’ve been in a state of flux for years and con­tinue to cause grum­bles. Take the kori bus­tard, for ex­am­ple. That ti­tan of the sa­van­nah, strolling through the grass, per­haps with a cheeky carmine bee-eater hitch­ing a ride on its back. But from whence the moniker? Kori is of Setswana ori­gin – kgôri – and the bird is tra­di­tion­ally viewed as a royal bird in Botswana, with only chiefs fit to dine on its meat. It’s also the of­fi­cial na­tional bird of that coun­try. In Afrikaans, how­ever, a kori is called a gom­pou, which means “glue pea­cock”. This creative name is de­rived from the bird’s soft spot for the gum of aca­cia trees. Sorry, Vachel­lia trees. The gum is just a treat – their main diet con­sists of well, any­thing ed­i­ble re­ally: in­ver­te­brates, rep­tiles, bird’s eggs and nestlings, ro­dents and lots of greens. They also en­joy the ined­i­ble: stones, bul­let shells, bat­ter­ies, coins, shat­tered glass or plas­tic tail lights. Pos­si­bly, these hard items aid in grind­ing up food in its giz­zard; or maybe the ex­tra bal­last helps the gom­pou to hold onto its record as the world’s heav­i­est fly­ing bird. Un­like the vo­cif­er­ous smaller ko­rhaan, the kori bus­tard is gen­er­ally a quiet bird ex­cept dur­ing mat­ing sea­son when, at the cli­max of the male’s ter­ri­to­rial pos­tur­ing, he seems to turn in­side out, trans­form­ing into an amor­phous feath­ery totem pole (bot­tom pic­ture). At this mo­ment, he might ut­ter a testos­terone­fu­elled boom­ing sound. I once had a rather un­nerv­ing au­di­tory en­counter with a kori that I had inad­ver­tently trapped in a sheep pen. The bird turned to face me and stopped me in my tracks with a deep, res­onat­ing bark – un­doubt­edly the most im­pres­sive and in­tim­i­dat­ing sound ever to as­sault my eardrums. As is the case with so many other large species, the world is sim­ply be­com­ing too small and too frag­mented for kori bus­tards. They face many threats: agri­cul­ture, over­graz­ing, bush en­croach­ment, col­li­sions with power lines, en­tan­gle­ment in fences, be­ing hunted for muti and bush meat, stray dogs, dis­tur­bance, disease… The list is de­press­ingly long. For­tu­nately, the flip side is that big and iconic species also get the most con­ser­va­tion at­ten­tion. One in­ge­nious con­ser­va­tion project is the sale of nat­u­rally moulted feath­ers from cap­tive bus­tards for use in mak­ing lures for fly-fish­ing. Pro­ceeds from the sales go to­wards on-the-ground con­ser­va­tion projects, such as pur­chas­ing satel­lite track­ers to doc­u­ment the move­ment of the birds. Look out for a kori bus­tard next time you’re driv­ing through grass­land in the Kala­hari. It’s al­ways an im­pres­sive sight.

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