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The Folk-Lore of Ceylon Birds

Nature volume 36, pages 381382 | Download Citation



A CORRESPONDENT of the Ceylon Observer of Colombo, referring to the interest excited by Mr. Swainson's new book on “The Folk-Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds,” notes some points in the folk-lore of the birds of Ceylon, obtained largely in conversation with natives. The devil-bird (Syrnium indrani) stands facile princeps for his evil reputation; his cry heard in the neighbourhood of villages is a sure harbinger of death, and the superstitious natives are thrown into great consternation by its demoniac screech. The legend about the bird is as follows:—A jealous and morose husband doubting the fidelity of his wife killed her infant son during her absence and had it cooked, and on her return set it before her. She unwittingly partook of it, but soon discovered that it was the body of her child by a finger which she found in the dish. In a frenzy she fled to the forest, and was transformed into a ulania, or devil-bird, whose appalling screams represent the agonized cries of the bereaved mother when she left her husband's house. The hooting of owls in the neighbourhood of houses is believed to bring misfortune on the inmates. The magpie robin, though one of the finest of the song-birds of Ceylon, is similarly tabooed; it has a harsh grating screech towards evening, which is considered ominous. The quack of the pond heron flying over a house is a sign of the death of one of the inmates, or of a death in the neighbourhood. If the green pigeon (Nila kobocya) should happen to fly through a house, as it frequently does on account of its rapid and headlong flight, a calamity is impending over that house. Similarly with the crow. But sparrows are believed to bring luck, and are encouraged to build in the neighbourhood of houses, and are daily fed. The fly-catcher bird of Paradise is called “cotton thief,” because in ancient times it was a freebooter, and plundered the cloth merchants. As a penalty for its sins it was transformed into a bird and doomed to carry a white cotton attached to its tail. The red wattle lapwing, the alarm bird of sportsmen, has the following legend connected with it:—It is said to represent a woman who committed suicide on finding herself robbed, of all her money, amounting to thirty silver pieces, by her son-in-law. The cry of the bird is likened to her lament: “Give the silver, give the silver, my thirty pieces of silver.“ Its call is heard at all hours, and the stillness of night is broken with startling abruptness by its shrill cry. Another story about it is that when lying in its nest in a paddy field, or a dry spotjn a marsh, it lies on its back with its legs in the air, being in continual fear that the heavens will fall and crush its offspring. The story current about the blue-black swallow-tailed fly-catcher (Kawudu panikkia) and its mortal enemy, the crow, is that the former, like Prometheus of old, brought down fire from heaven for the benefit of man. The crow, jealous of the honour, dipped its wings in water and shook the drippings over the flame, quenching it. Since that time there has been deadly enmity between the birds. The Indian ground thrush (Pitta coronata) is said to have once possessed the peacock's plumes, but one day when bathing the peacock stole its dress; ever since the Pitta has gone about the jungle crying out for its lost garments. According to another legend, the bird was formerly a prince who was deeply in love with a beautiful princess. His father sent him to travel for some years, and on his return the princess was dead. He still wanders disconsolately about calling her name. It is also said that the peacock, being a bird of sober plumage, borrowed the brilliant coat of the Pitta to attend a wedding, and did not return it. The disconsolate Pitta wanders through the jungle calling on the peacock to restore its dress—hence the cry, ayittam, ayittam (my dress, my dress). The cry of the hornbill (Kandetta) is inauspicious and a sure sign of drought. The bird is doomed to suffer intolerable thirst; not being able to drink from any stream or rill, it has the power only to catch the rain-drops in its bill to quench its thirst, and keeps continually crying for rain.

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