Natural History

Talking Taino: Birds of a Feather

By Dr. Bill Keegan and Dr. Betsy Carlson

Photos by Richard Ground

[The men] were very anxious to have women, and on many occasions while it rained, they had sought to find traces of their women, but they were not able to find any news [of them]. But that day when they washed, they saw fall from some trees . . . a certain kind of persons, who were neither men nor women, nor had the sexual parts of either male or female. After they had captured the creatures, they took counsel about how they could make them women . . . They sought a bird whose name is Inriri . . . This bird bores holes in trees, [and in our language is called a woodpecker.] They took the women without sexual parts . . . and they tied their hands and feet. Then they took this bird and tied it to the bodies. Thinking that the creatures were logs, the bird began to do the work to which it was accustomed, boring open and pecking away at the place where the female’s private is usually found. In this way, the Indians had women.

(From the account of Ramon Pane (1497), translated in Cave of the Jagua, Antonio M Stevens-Arroyo, University of New Mexico Press, 1988, p. 169.)

The Spanish recorded about 40 Taino names for birds. It is likely that there were many more named species, but that these did not catch the attention of the chroniclers. Some names were recorded because the birds were similar to those in Europe, so it has been possible to use the published descriptions to decipher their modern common and scientific names. Other birds were described and their names recorded because they were novel. For example, the insectivorous Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophagia ani), a long-tailed, glossy black cuckoo with an extraordinary bill that is deep at the base with a high and thin ridge on top, still bears its Taino name (Ani).

tt-west-indian-woodpeckerSome birds entered the lexicon through their prominent roles in Taino mythology. The best example is the industrious woodpecker (Inriri). By fashioning women from creatures without genitalia, this bird achieved everlasting esteem in the hearts and minds of men.

In many Taino images, bird motifs are intermixed with human characteristics and these bird images are usually interpreted as a masculine symbol. Specifically, birds with long pointed beaks are quite common in Taino symbolic arts. Stone or ceramic bird faces often display an upturned mouth or beak, large round eyes, a crest on the top of the head, and/or hatching around the face, head, or torso to create the illusion of feathers.

While excavating sites on Middle Caicos in 2000, we lived in the two rooms of the Vera Hamilton Elementary School in Bambarra. True to his morning routine, Keegan fixed a cup of coffee and sat on the front porch to watch the sunrise. It might have been just like every other morning if not for the visitors of the previous day. A representative of the Darwin Initiative (UK) and the Director of the National Trust had visited to consider adding the trail to MC-6 and the south coast to the Crossing Path trail and to look into the possibility of converting the schoolhouse into an interpretation center for tourists. They were very excited when they arrived because on the previous day they had seen a bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) on North Caicos. The male of this species is the smallest known bird in the world. These birds had not been reported in the Islands for many years. So this morning, the tiny black bumblebee that flitted between the small purple flowers of the clearing merited special attention. Its flight pattern was not that of a bee; it clearly was a bird — a bee hummingbird on Middle Caicos.

Oviedo described this bird almost 500 years earlier as ” . . . no larger than the end of the thumb. There is no person who sees it fly but that thinks it is a bumblebee. So swift in flight that it is as impossible to see its wings.” The Taino word for the bee hummingbird was Guani. This is the same word that was used to describe a noble person and the root of the word guanin, the Taino god that was the highest symbol of authority. There are many species of hummingbirds and often the local names begin with the prefix zum- or zun-, apparently a common interpretation of the hummingbird’s hum. One reported Taino name for a hummingbird was Zum-zum, although Colibri and Guacariga also have been reported.

The crescent shape of the hummingbird’s body and their highly iridescent plumage may also have associated it, for the Taino, with the rainbow. The rainbow forms a bridge between the land, sky, and underworld of subterranean waters: the three realms of the Taino cosmos. Animals that move freely between these realms were highly esteemed. Bats hold a special significance because they emerge from caves, the portal to the subterranean world, and enter the sky at night; sea turtles emerge from the sea to nest on land; and birds effortlessly bridge the sky and the earth. Aquatic birds, especially those that enter the water, take it one step further and bridge the water, earth, and sky. These creatures hold a special place in Taino beliefs. Fully one quarter of the birds recorded by the Spanish are associated with water. These include the cormorant (Cuyaya), herons (Yaguasa, Maubeca), American Bittern (Yaboa) and a species of rail whose Taino name is still used today (Sora).

Representations of water birds have been associated with the Taino Water Goddess, Coatrisquie, who gathered the waters and let them flow so they destroyed the countryside. Birds that carry the bitter and destructive waters from the sea to the earth while passing through the sky represented her. The large pelican may be one such representation. They have been tentatively identified on Ostionan style pottery from Puerto Rico, a pottery type that contains very few other zoomorphic representations.

owl-adornoAnother category of bird important to Taino mythology was night birds. Night was a dangerous time, a time when only the spirits of the forest (opias) were out and about. These include nighthawks (Querequete), night herons (Yaboa), and, most importantly, owls (Mucaro). Anyone who has spooked a yellow-crowned night heron will attest to the heart-stopping squawk emitted by this bird on a dark night. Imagine trying to sleep in a thatched hut with a yellow-crowned night heron walking across the roof! Owls carry special significance because, like bats, they frequent caves and caverns; their images commonly appear on pottery vessels. Owls can be recognized on modeled pottery “adornos” by their very large round eyes, encircled by an incised ring. They are dwellers of the night with excellent nocturnal vision, with the presumed ability to see into the supernatural. They are the zoomorphic equivalent to a deceased human or ghostly spirit.

tt-parrotOne of the most highly esteemed birds for the Taino were parrots — not for their symbolic meaning but for their economic value. Oviedo (1526) claimed that there were”so many different species of parrots that it would be a long task to describe them.” Indeed, Oviedo claimed that 10 to 12 species of parrots were shipped to King Ferdinand in Spain and that many of these could talk. Higuaca was the Taino word for the common green parrots (Amazona sp.). Jajabi referred to smaller parrots, probably parakeets (Aratinga sp.). Macaws (Ara sp.) became extinct in the West Indies in the 19th Century but the Taino had a name for them — guacamayo.

The colored feathers and maybe even the birds themselves were a valuable trade item throughout the West Indies. The Tainos made feathered capes and crowns, and used brightly colored feathers for numerous decorative purposes. A common type of stone pendant has both horizontally and vertically drilled holes. The string for suspending the pendant passed through the horizontal hole, and feathers were inserted into the vertical holes at the top and bottom of the pendant.

With very little effort it is easy to find excellent bird-watching spots in the Turks & Caicos. It also helps to have a good guidebook. The classic for the Islands is Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (Houghton Mifflin, 1961), the ornithologist who provided the name for Ian Fleming’s 007 character. After WW II, Fleming retired from British Intelligence and built his estate, named Goldeneye, on the north shore of Jamaica. Fleming kept a copy of Birds of the West Indies on his kitchen table at Goldeneye, and in 1952 he used this name that was so familiar to him. The real James Bond didn’t meet Ian Fleming until the early 1960s. If you happen upon a copy of the book with its original dust jacket take a look at the author’s photo. The real James Bond bears a striking resemblance to a young Sean Connery.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist with SEARCH, Inc. Gainesville, Florida.

Editor’s Note: An excellent resource for birdwatching in the Islands is The Birds of the Turks & Caicos Islands by Richard Ground (ISBN 976-95079-0-3). Over 190 species are recorded, most illustrated with beautiful full-color pictures by the author. Proceeds from the book’s sale go to the Turks & Caicos National Trust. For ordering information, contact the Trust at 649 941 5710 or email

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Feb 11, 2010 21:06

There’s a little hummingbird that seems to live in my backyard and flies around all the time. It’s so pretty!

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