Strange Bird Folklore of Obama

Strange Bird Folklore of Obama

Chicagoans silently streamed tears and New Yorkers thronged the streets as Barack Obama delivered his presidential acceptance speech last night but the fervor was also felt in Kogelo, a village in western Kenya and the ancestral homeland of President-elect Obama. I spent a summer near here, surveying avian diversity in maize fields and forest patches and gathering bird mythologies from elders. The Luo people—the tribe of Obama’s father and much of western Kenya—have mixed regard for birds, which can destroy crops, eliminate pests, bring magic or imply death. Here are some of the stories I collected:

Justin Nobel
Published: 11/05/2008

Chicagoans silently streamed tears and New Yorkers thronged the streets as Barack Obama delivered his presidential acceptance speech last night, but the fervor was also felt in Kogelo, a village in western Kenya and the ancestral homeland of President-elect Obama. I spent a summer near here, surveying avian diversity in maize fields and forest patches and gathering bird mythologies from elders. The Luo people—the tribe of Obama’s father and much of western Kenya—have mixed regard for birds, which can destroy crops, eliminate pests, bring magic or imply death. Here are some of the stories I collected:

It is believed if you tie a rope around the leg of a white-browed coucal chick the mother bird will snap the rope with a twig to free its young. This now magical twig will open locked doors and keep wild animals and villains from attacking you.

The polygamous male whydah bird uses its lengthy tail feathers to lure females, the longer the tail the more mates he’ll get. Human males can flash these feathers in front of a woman, feed her roasted whydah, or apply the crushed and dried bird as a powder to their hand before greeting a lady in order to increase their own mating chances.


The male whydah bird uses its lengthy tail feathers to lure females. In President-elect Obama's ancestral homeland folklore says that when the bird is crushed, dried and applied as a powder to the hand of a woman she will be seduced. (By Justin Nobel)

The pygmy kingfisher when crushed, dried, and applied as a salve on the back of a crying toddler’s neck will bring sleep.

A swallow entering your home will bring a barren woman a child.

Roasted cardinal woodpecker when fed to a sick cow will make it produce milk.

If you kill the friendly African pied wagtail its kin will come in the night and burn your house down.

Many residents were shocked I had traveled from New York to their small village in the heart of Africa just to study birds. Some presented me live quails to eat and others, convinced I was there to catch the birds they considered pests, invited me onto their farms to exterminate birds like weavers, which eat maize. The avian highlight was when I spotted a Ross’s turaco, a brilliant blue bird with a red crest and a call like raucous children.


Weaver birds build nests from maize leaves. Some western Kenya farmers would like to see the bird eliminated. (By Justin Nobel)


Ross's turaco are a forest species, found also in woodsy patches on western Kenya farmland. Their call sounds like raucous children. (By Justin Nobel)