Highland Maya Ethnoornithology

The central highlands of Guatemala, the ancestral lands of the Q’eqchi’ Maya, is home to a stunning diversity of bird species. Since ancient times, the Q’eqchi’ Maya people have been carefully watching and listening to birds. For the Q’eqchi’ Maya, birds are divine messengers, harbingers of good or ill fortune, and manifestations of divine presence. Birds are the servants of mountain-valley god, Kawa Tzul-Taqa.

Hike out to any far-flung, outback, community in the central highlands and you will find very few Spanish speakers. Here the dominate language is Q’eqchi’ Maya. People here are intimately connected with the natural and super natural world around them, especially with birds. People in remote, rural communities spend most of their time outside. The Q’eqchi’ Maya are remarkably tuned into the avian-soundscape around them.

Walking through the forest in the Sierra Sacranix.   © 2008 Rob Cahill, San Pedrito, Alta Verapaz
Walking through the forest in the Sierra Sacranix. © 2008 Rob Cahill, San Pedrito, Alta Verapaz

In traditional Q’eqchi’ Maya belief bird vocalization are communications with the mountain-valley god. Bird songs and calls can be prayers, praises, thanksgiving, announcements, or omens. Birds are feathered epiphanies, winged revelations. They are servants of the divine creator.

One of the most fascinating functions of bird sounds is that of “saying down the rain,” or “chi xyeb’al li hab’.” In the Q’eqchi’ cosmovision, rain sayers, “aj yehol hab'”, are an entire category of birds found in a wide variety of bird families.

The foremost rain sayer is the swift, the most common of which in the Q’eqchi’ area is the enormous White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris mexicanus). The Q’eqchi’ name for Swifts is wilix (pronounced güílish) but since this bird’s presence and call is so closely connected with the coming of the rain, the Q’eqchi’ also name this bird: “aj yehol hab'” the rain sayer.

José Maria Tzub Tz’i’ stands at the edge of his cornfield. A cloud of White-collared Swifts ascends from the mouth of a limestone cave, up into the dome of the graying sky, with explosive, screeching, chattering cries. José Maria explains: “The swifts are sent to fetch down the rain. They are crying as they run their errand. Some are naughty and their cries are disagreeable.” When the sky fills with Swifts, Q’eqchi’ peasant farmers begin to look for rain.

Solitaires (genus Myadestes)

Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestes occidentalis) In Q'eqchi': Xalau Kokpim© 2007 Rob Cahill, Fuentes Georginas, Zunil, Quetzaltenango
Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestes occidentalis) In Q’eqchi’: Xalau Kokpim
© 2007 Rob Cahill, Fuentes Georginas, Zunil, Quetzaltenango

Two other birds hold a peculiar cultural interest in the category of rain sayer. They are two Solitaires, genus Myadestes, commonly found in the central highlands. The Slate-colored Solitaire (Myadestes unicolor) is endemic to the cloud forests of the highlands of northern Mesoamerica. The Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestes occidentalis) is commonly heard in montane, pine-oak, and second growth forests of the same region in Guatemala, extending north through Mexico.

The Q’eqchi’ Maya consider both Solitaires to be rain sayers. Both species they consider to be special servants of Kawa Tzul-Taqa. In the Q’eqchi’ language Solitaire is Xalau (pronounced Shalau). The Slate-colored Solitaire (Myadestes unicolor) they call Xalau Kiche’ or ‘forest solitaire.’ The Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestes occidentalis) they call Xalau Kok-pim or ‘Solitaire of the second growth.’ Q’eqchi’ people say that the Xalau Kiche’, (Myadestes unicolor), sings in the Q’eqchi’ language and that the Xalau Kok-pim, Myadestes occidentalis, sings in the Pocomchi’ language. The Pocomchi’ Maya neighbor the Q’eqchi’ Maya to the south and west, areas dominated by Montane, pine-oak forests.

In the cloud forest above Coban, the Slate-colored Solitaire dominates the soundscape. Its haunting, ethereal song fits the other-worldly character of the landscape, the subtle, shimmering gleam of the mist drenched forest.

Other Thrushes (Turdus and Catharus)

Clay-colored Robin(Turdus grayi) In Q'eqchi': K'ok'ob © 2008 Rob Cahill, Finca Chi Poc, Coban, Alta Verapaz
Clay-colored Robin(Turdus grayi)
In Q’eqchi’: K’ok’ob
© 2008 Rob Cahill, Finca Chi Poc, Coban, Alta Verapaz

Other Thrushes (Turdus and Catharus)

Other noteworthy rain sayers, besides the genus Myadestes, are found in the thrush family (Turdidae), a family known for its exquisite songs. The heavy bodied thrushes of the Turdus genus are called in Q’eqchi’ K’ok’ob the The Black Thrush (Turdus infuscatus) named Keki K’ok’ob by the Q’eqchi’ is a rain sayer. Its song of doublets and triplets captures the imagination of the Q’eqchi’ Maya, as their language loves doublets. Q’eqchi’ prayer and poetry is filled with doublets. The Q’eqchi’ say the Black Thrush (K’ok’ob) is in prayer when it sings. The Black Thrush song fits beautifully into the language and culture of the Q’eqchi’.

Two other birds in the family Turdidae are considered rain sayers: the Spotted Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus dryas ovandensis) called in Q’eqchi’ Q’an Oqel and the Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus frantzii), known to the Q’eqchi’ as Q’an Oqel Re Kiche’. The songs of these two species also say the rain.

Thrush songs, more than the songs of other families of birds, seem to transcend spatial limitations. Thrush song penetrate, not only the dense cloak of bromeliads and moss covered laurel trees of the cloud forest, but even the azure dome of the sky, like a fugue of J. S. Bach or the whispered prayer of a bereft widow. Rain sayers sing beyond the stars and their prayers are answered as the clouds draw down, entwining themselves among the tops of the oak trees of the cloud forest.

Chachalacas and other Cracids (Ortalis and Guans)

Plain Chachalacas(Ortalis vetula) In Q'eqchi': Jayketzo' © 2008 Rob Cahill, Santa Elena, Peten
Plain Chachalacas(Ortalis vetula)
In Q’eqchi’: Jayketzo’
© 2008 Rob Cahill, Santa Elena, Peten

No list of rain sayers would be complete without mentioning a bird that some consider a rain sayer and some consider a sun sayer. Rain or shine, the Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is as dominant in the soundscape of the montane forests and scrub as it is prevalent in the cultural landscape of the Q’eqchi’ Maya. The most common of the Cracids in central Guatemala, this bird has an interesting cultural profile for the Q’eqchi’. The Q’eqchi’ name for the Plain Chachalaca is onomatopoetically derived from the bird’s incessant, raucous, three syllable call, hai – ke – tzo, giving it the name Jayketzo’. Half-hour before dawn Chachalacas being to call. They keep it up until dawn. This gives them the fame of sun sayer.

Chachalacas call in chorus. It is rare to hear just one vocalizing at a time. When flock of Chachalacas (known as “Collaboration of Chachalacas”) breaks out into a cacophony of cries, Q’eqchi’ farmers hear in these cries the distress of the hungry. Whether the Chachalacas cry out for rain or sun the basis of their clamor is the same. They plead that the mountain and the sky would provide enough of all the needed elements: moisture from the clouds, light from the sun, nutrients from the soil, that fecundity, goodness, balance and abundance would reign.

Lesser Roadrunner (Geococcyx) Ixnam or the Sister-in-Law Bird

Lesser Roadrunner(Geococcyx velox melanchim) In Q’eqchi’: Ixnam (lit. sister-in-law) © 2007 John Cahill
Lesser Roadrunner(Geococcyx velox melanchim)
In Q’eqchi’: Ixnam (lit. sister-in-law)
© 2007 John Cahill

The Q’eqchi’ Maya people listen closely to bird vocalizations. This is evidenced by the fact that a majority of Q’eqchi’ Maya bird names are onomatopoetically derived. This means that the Q’eqchi’ Maya believe that many birds vocalize their own name. There is one peculiar vocalization on the soundscape of Alta Verapaz that has been the occasion for an unusual example of name-calling. The low mournful moaning cries of the Lesser Roadrunner can be heard in the second growth vegetation of the abandoned cornfields. The moaning of the Lesser Roadrunner suggests a profound sadness.

The Q’eqchi’ Maya have a legend that explains the naming of this bird and why it cries so plaintively.

Once-upon-a-time a young woman left the home of her mother and father and went to live with the family of her new husband. After living with her new family for one month, she became homesick and wished to return to her mother and father. She told her young husband of her desire to return home. Her request saddened him. A dispute arose between her and her new family. Finally, she decided to go alone and in secret. She left in the dead of night and she walked for hours to get to the house of her parents. At dawn she arrived to find the house empty and abandoned. She searched and she called but no one answered. Finally she walked to the house of a neighbor. There she learned that her family mysteriously had disappeared.

The young woman was distraught. She fled from the place and began to return to the house of her husband and his family. She cried as she ran. Pain and sorrow entered into her heart. By the time she arrived, she had become a gaunt, thin bird, with long neck and tail. She arrived in this condition at the house of her young husband but she did not enter into the house. She stayed outside at a distance and cried in her low mournful moaning voice. Today the Q’eqchi’ Maya people name the Lesser Roadrunning “Li Ixnam” – the sister-in-law bird.

Hummingbirds (Trochilidae)
Highland Maya Ethnoornithology:
Tz’unun: The Maya and their hummingbirds

Green Violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus) © 2008 Rob Cahill, Chelemha', Alta Verapaz
Green Violet-ear (Colibri thalassinus) © 2008 Rob Cahill, Chelemha’, Alta Verapaz

From ancient times to the present, the Maya people have revered the hummingbird as a manifestation of the sun and a symbol of life. Hummingbirds represent male fertility Today, the Q’eqchi’ Maya revere the hummingbird as a vibrant symbol of life. The hummingbird is a common motif in Q’eqchi’ weaving. Women weave it into the blouses (huipiles). An infertile woman will seek an encounter with hummingbirds, a kind of winged sacrament that can increase her chances of conception.

In Q’eqchi’ Maya lore, the god Baalam Kej, or Jaguar-Deer, turns himself into a hummingbird in order to bypass the jealous father of Lady Moon (the moon goddess). Lady Moon encounters the hummingbird while she is fetching water at the stream. The hummingbird is so brilliant and shining that she is irresistably drawn to its beauty and grace. The Hummingbird allows itself to be caught by Lady Moon. She puts the hummingbird in her blouse (huipil) between her breasts and takes it home. Lady Moon’s father, Qaawa’ Tzuul Taq’a (the creator-supreme god) builds a house for the hummingbird in Lady Moon’s sleeping quarters. In this way, Baalam Kej, wins his way into Lady Moon’s bedroom in the guise of a hummingbird. They elope that night and Jaguar-Deer, who is the sun-god, and the moon goddess are a match made in the heavens that has lasted from the dawn of time until now. Today Q’eqchi’ women weave the hummingbird into their blouses (huipils) as a reminder of this story. The Q’eqchi’ maintain flower gardens along the sides of their houses because a hummingbird is a noble guest, the embodiment of the sun.

Derivation: The word ‘hummingbird’ in Q’eqchi’ is tz’unun, a word that derives from the verbal root: tz’ub’ – (infinitive form: tz’ub’uk, to kiss or suck). In the Chorti Maya language: tz’u’n, to suck, to nurse from the breast. Thus the word tz’unun derives from the hummingbirds’ ability to suck nectar from flowers. The word tz’unun appears in compound nouns as well tu’tz-tz’unun is a native wild flower of the cloud forest, literally translated, this wildflower is called “hummingbird marigold.” Tz’unun or a close derivative means hummingbird in nearly every Maya language.

Since hummingbirds are fairly difficult to distinguish, Q’eqchi’ nomenclature has not developed within the family Trochilidae as much as in other families. Locally, in communities bordering the cloud forest, there is species specific nomenclature.

The Sach’aj or Band-backed Wren and a cure for worts

Band-backed Wren (Campylorhynchus zonatus restrictus) In Q'eqchi': Sach'aj © 2007 John Cahill, Santiago Atitlan, Solola
Band-backed Wren
(Campylorhynchus zonatus restrictus)
In Q’eqchi’: Sach’aj
© 2007 John Cahill, Santiago Atitlan, Solola

The Band-backed Wren (Campylorhynchus zonatus restrictus) is a boisterous, talkative resident of the trees and bushes of scrub, edge and second growth. He commands attention and his repetative call looms large on the soundscape in the areas he inhabits. One might guess that a bird this conspicuous must have earned its own name among the Q’eqchi’ people and indeed, it has earned, not only a name, but lore as well.

The Q’eqchi’ word “bolich,” generically refers to small wrens. The wrens of the Campylorhynchus genus, those closely related to the Cactus Wren, are bulkier and generally not quite as classy as the small wrens. The Q’eqchi’ distinguish between these two groups of wrens, resisting the epitate “bolich” for the large wrens and applying “bolich” to generically to most small bodied wrens.

The name “Sach’aj” is onomatopoeically derived. Agroecologist Ricardo Ical Chub convincingly imitates the bird on the sound clip, pronouncing the sound with the phonetic components of the name. Many bird names are onomatopoeically derived in the Q’eqchi’ language.

The pied plumage might have something to do with the derivation of the name Sach’aj, as Ricardo Ical Chub cryptically explains, “sac” (white) and ch’aj (wash), it’s the pied plumage that helps give it its name.

Ricardo goes on to explain some of the lore connected to this bird: if you have fungus or warts, this bird can cure you. When the bird starts to give its call, start dancing to the beat. Dance to the music the bird makes and you will lose your warts, your fungus, pretty much any skin issues you might be having.

So if you begin to hear the raspy, repetitive chattering call of the Band-backed Wren, start dancing to its rhythm. Who knows, maybe it cures more than warts.