I heard them sing late one evening – between midnight and 1 a.m. I faintly recalled having heard their awe-inspiring song before -- long, long ago, when I was growing up at Asiakwa in the Eastern Region.
The sound they made was so haunting that our elders used to claim that this particular bird was an abonsam noma – literally, "the devil’s bird."
Since these birds usually came to sing their dirge in the errie hours of the night, people who believed that witchcraft and its associated metaphysical feats usually occur during the night, naturally called them abonsam noma. Who can blame them?
Indeed, whenever the abonsam noma made noise at night, the elders became very nervous the next morning. They fully expected to hear reports that someone had died during the night. Even if it was only onve in a thousand days that the singinmg of the birds and a death coincided, you would find it extremely difficult to convince our elders that the two events were not connected.
Anyway, when I heard the birds sing late one night recently in Accra, I shivered. I thought that such birds only thrived in the green forest? What were they doing on the coast? Then I rememberted -- many birds do migrate to places where they are not expected to be. Hadn't I heard, in England, birdfs like the thrush and the nightingale whose melodious tones immediatel;y took me back to the Abuakwas forest birds, especially, opori3 and kctcpcri3?
I forgot about the birds. But they came back – this time, during the day. Their cries were shorter and not as haunting as it was at night-time. This is probably explained by the fact that unlike the night cries, there was now no monopolisation of my attention, as the world was awake and kicking. And, of course, my half-dreaming mind of the midnight hour was not the same object as lay inside my skull at a time when traffic noises and the cacophony of construction machinery were making me loathe city life.
The unexpected appearance of the birds in the daytime gave me the hope that I might actually get to see what they were like one day. I had strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of them suring their night call, but they had f;ashed away, leaving blurred traces of greyness and a faint tinge of pink behind for my eyes to puzzle over. Nothing as lucky as that happened for about a week. Then, one mid-afternoon, I heard their cries getting nearer and nearer and – next thing, they were flying right over my roof, yelling: quah-quah-quah-quah-quah-quah!" Wow!
They were going very fast, but I managed to catch sight of their colour and confirm it as grey-whitish-pink.
Were they kestrels? Goshawks? Kites? Sparrow hawks? Hawks? Or curlews? What about that supreme creature that disputes the title “king of the skies” with the eagle, the Peregrine falcon?
I associate falcons, of course, with the Middle East (where they are widely used for sport.) But the rendition of their cries that I saw on Youtube warned me not to dismiss the possibility that they could perhaps be migratory Peregrine falcons.
I later read that Peregrine falcons can be found “in every continent of the world, excluding Antarctica”! That means “my birds” could be falcons! Indeed, “some sub-species are resident”, while others “are migratory.” That opened up every possibility very wide indeed.
On fact, according to ornithologists, "most of the sub-Saharan Africa population of falcon is resident." In Ghana, I suspect they might belong to the large group of birds of prey which we call akorcma or csansa. In southern Africa, falcons are generally localised in Namibia, northern and eastern Botswana, Zimbabwe, western Mozambique and South Africa. They generally favour riverine, mountainous or coastal environments, especially with high cliffs that are used for roosting and hunting. Dam walls, quarries and the tall buildings of city centres can also fulfil this purpose.
Their colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). Ah? I seem to have lost out in the colour stakes, no?!
Most of the southern African population (the sub-species falco peregrinus minor) is resident and sedentary. However the migrant falco peregrinus calidus may also be present in the region in the period from October-March, and can often be found in more open habitats than its resident counterpart. West African falcons are hardly mentioned by the ornithologists I have consulted so far.
The falcon eats mainly birds, supplemented with bats and flying insects, catching all of its prey aerially. It does most of its hunting in the vicinity of a cliff or another tall structure, either hunting from a perch near the top, or from high up in the air, so that it can single out an individual. Once it has done so, it dives almost vertically and, due to its spectaculalry aerodynamic shape, can attain speeds of over 300km/hr! (almost 200 m.p.h.)
The falcon strikes its prey with its talons at this speed, killing it instantly. If it misses, it may give pursuit for over two kilometres before giving up. It sometimes flies close to the cliff face to flush out birds and then chase them, and it may even rob the nests of cliff-nesting birds. On the whole, about a quarter of its hunts are successful.
I do wish the books about birds made it easy to identify them. Most of those I have consulted only have Latin (scientific) names, or English names for the birds. As I have written before, this infuriates me! When am I going to read the work of a zoologist or ornithologist who is curious enough to write about, say, the reason why the apatupr3, for instance, is so named by the Akans?
When we were kids, we made up our own rationalisations of such bird names. We came up with the idea that the apatupr3 lives so close to the homes of humans (it nests on neem trees and other domestic foliage) that it has learnt that we love to catch and eat it. So when it sees a human being near it, it pretends to be injured and lies down feigning the imminent seizure of its body by rigor mortis! (It also obviously knows that we don't eat birds that we find are already dead!). This play-acting of the apatupr3 distracts the attention of the would-be human killer and the hunter gives up any hope of taking the bird. That half a second of distraction is all that the bird needs to fly vertically away and leave its hunter confounded!
One bird we used to pity was the ateibia. Its song was so melancholy that we interpreted it to be a weeping song that said:
Onipa ko a
Cb3faa me mma yi,
Cy3 cbarima na cnny3 cbaa,
S3 cy3 cbaa de aa
Anka onim s3nea awoc te3!
Me nsono mu o!....
(Whoever came and stole my children
Can only be a man
Not a woman.
For if it were a woman,
She would know what it is like
To give birth to children!
I lament the work of my poor weomb! )
Isn’t that rather charming in an oronical sort of way? I mean, we as kids learnt to feel what birds must feel when human beings visit all manner of brutalities on them, did we?
In that case, why did we not take our “fellow--feeling beyond mere words to the ACTION of refraining from harming birds and other animals? Whi did birds taste so good to us when we grilled them on our mothers' fire?
Were we not so murderous, who knows but that the Peregrine falcons and other really wild birds would come, perch, and sing to me, instead of flying high and very fast past me -- as if I were Covid-19 itself!