A unique characteristic that we as humans possess is the ability to assign meaning to objects. From early humans engraving shells used as symbolic jewellery to wedding bands worn by people today, we have continued to place sentimental significance and meaning on certain items. Colourful and extravagant feathers have been used in the past to symbolize characteristics such as power, femininity, masculinity, beauty and fertility. Plumage also has common associations with human self-adornment, wealth, vitality and other culture specific symbolic ties.
Some of the birds that frequent Londolozi have striking plumage which have been used in the past for symbolic purposes.
Lilac Breasted Roller:
These birds radiate splendour as they display their kaleidoscopic colour with each flap of their wings. It is no surprise that they have been commonly referred to as the ‘rainbows of the African skies’. With a pallet of turquoise blues, washed greens and lilac purples, they never cease to amaze even the most frequent safari goer.
The folklore associated with the plumes has a strong connection to the bond of two people and marriage. In the Zulu culture, a marriage ceremony would include the tying together of two people using the feathers of the lilac breasted roller. If the bond between the feathers was strong and successfully held the couple together, the community would give them the go-ahead. This wedding theme can also be seen in the Venda culture, who used these feathers as wedding bands, as well as the Voortrekkers who would have the feathers in their wedding dresses.
One of the most intriguing bird groups is the turacos (previously known as the loerie). Their long tails, distinctive crest on their head and croaking calls are only a few characteristics which make these birds instantly recognizable. Some of the more pigmented species, such as the Knysna turaco, are renowned for their striking beauty. Their verdant green feathers and flashes of red are common features in magazine literature. The vivid red pigment seen in their flight feathers – known as turacin – is found on no other animal and it is for this reason that these plumes have several cultural ties. In Cameroon, the red feathers of the Bannerman’s Turaco are handed out to people for public distinction, courage and high esteem. These red feathers are worn on the head and are the origin of the common phrase ‘a feather in one’s cap’.
In West Africa, the Bannerman’s feathers are worn against a black hat and are an indication of the individual’s position as a traditional council member. Turaco flight feathers were also often worn in the headdresses of Zulus people, and are still worn by the King of Swaziland and traditional Maasai men.
While on safari at Londolozi, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon some of these quirky creatures. Over the years these tall, land-bound birds have had many cultural responses due to their sheer size as well as the lacey white and black feathers found on the males. The soft and bushy filamentous plumes of these birds have been associated with masculinity, power and feminine allure. When in motion these feathers wave and ripple in the air which is why they can often be seen on the headdresses of many African groups.
In Western Kenya, outsiders often thought that these feathers had powers. This was based on sightings of these long plumes herding cattle. In actual fact it was the headdresses of the herdsman moving above the long grass. Maasai people’s spears and headdresses were also adorned with these large intimidating feathers; if worn in the headdress it would be known that the individual had not yet killed a lion. These plumes eventually spread as a sign of status and personal quality in western societies. The white feathers of the ostrich are on the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales and could also be seen in the hat of a seventeenth-century cavalier, communicating his status.
It’s truly fascinating the emphasis and meaning different cultures across the world can place on these otherwise insignificant objects. When encountering some of these spectacular birds, you soon realize the charm and beauty they hold and it’s no wonder humans have adored them and their plumes for centuries.