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