/ 6 March 2023

Bird conservation group compiles bird names list in isiZulu

Birds Getty
BirdLife South Africa, a bird conservation organisation, is working on compiling a list of bird names in isiZulu. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

BirdLife South Africa, a bird conservation organisation, is working on compiling a list of bird names in isiZulu. They are also working towards having more lists in other official South African languages.  

Andrew de Bolcq, an avitourism project manager at BirdLife South Africa, says it is important to raise awareness about birds and birding and what better way to do that than to have bird names in a language of people you are trying to reach.

“One of BirdLife South Africa’s goals is to raise awareness about our diversity of birds in South Africa, and also to grow the support for their conservation. There is a very clear language barrier … Until this project completed the list for isiZulu, there were only complete lists of South Africa’s birds in English and Afrikaans, which reinforced an unfair stereotype that birds were a ‘white people thing’,” says De Bolcq. 

He says the process of compiling the list was a lengthy one. They had to go through extensive research, including academic literature and “grey literature”, documents that are not published through conventional commercial channels.

“This is then supplemented by a consultative approach with language experts, native speakers and local communities, especially elders and active birders who speak the language. Once this has been concluded a list is compiled of all the names of birds that do exist, there is a workshop-based process.” 

The workshop was attended by linguists, birding enthusiasts, local guides who speak the language, and birding experts who help guide the process.  

“These workshops firstly conclude which name is most prevalent if there are multiple names for a bird [for the sake of standardisation, and then where there is not a name for a bird in a language there is another process to create one.”

Naming birds

The process of giving bird’s names is quite interesting, De Bolcq says. The group first considers the most important features of the bird that help to distinguish it, for example colour, behaviour, shape, size, distribution and habitat. 

“This is then formed into a sensible name within the linguistic structures, sometimes joining it to a stem name — an English example is cinnamon-breasted bunting, with the colour of the breast being the descriptor and bunting the group — and other times being a standalone name, for example Cape gannet or isicibamanzi, which means ‘the spear into the water’).

“This name is always decided on by consensus of the language and cultural representatives present. Then, once the list is finalised, we put it out for public comment for a year before adopting it, which is where we are in the process for isiZulu.” 

De Bolcq says BirdLife is open to having as many people as possible participating in the projects, because the wider they consult the representative and inclusive the list becomes.

For the isiZulu bird list, BirdLife worked in KwaZulu-Natal and had nearly 30 BirdLife trained Zulu-speaking bird guides who surveyed the areas where they lived. 

“That portion of the work was led by Professor Adrian Koopman and Professor Noleen Turner of UKZN [University of KwaZulu-Natal]. Our work to complete the list for South Africa included a selection of guides, a Zulu-speaking BirdLife South Africa representative, the two aforementioned Zulu language experts, and a panel of bird experts.”  

Creating a connection

He says the reason this initiative is so important is having the mother tongue connection to a bird enables a deeper and more personal engagement.

He quotes Nelson Mandela saying, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

“Birds are culturally and spiritually significant to all cultures and groups in South Africa in one way or another, and there is also no reason that a non-English or Afrikaans speaking person should be able to refer to each of our wonderful birds in their own language,” says De Bolcq. 

“Consider that a Cape gannet was previously known as iCape-gannet because it never had a name, and now there is the evocative, image-rich, beautiful Zulu name isicibamanzi. How wonderful. Having names for birds really is just the first step, though.” 

Birdlife is in the process of having a major birding app, Birda, translated into isiZulu. The organisation is using the Zulu bird names in the environmental education and awareness project, as well as in Zulu-medium social media and web content. 

“We are confident that this work will drive future interest in birds from previously neglected demographics in South Africa,” says De Bolcq. 

“The publication of the list in isiZulu [for peer review] brings the total complete lists to three: isiZulu, English and Afrikaans. We are looking at our next language to work on, and the most likely candidates are Sesotho, Sepedi, and isiXhosa [all dependent on the availability of language champions and funding]. We are hoping to roll out a list in a new language once a year.” 

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa