I am the mountain toucan’s wife: Birds in the ritual songs of Runa women in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Tod Swanson

Arizona State University

Pages 1, 2,3,4,5,6, 7,8, 9

In 1918 Rafael Karsten, the earliest professional ethnographer to work among the Shuar discovered what for him was an odd practice: “It is common that at the great feasts the women address their songs to certain beautiful birds of the forest, which are then personified and spoken to.  Among these birds the toucan (tsukanga) the cock-of-the-rock (sumga), the pugi (mashu), and the wild turkey (kuyu) play the principle roles, and the dancing women address them, giving them all sorts of pet names, praising their brilliant plumage, their walk, etc.” 

    Why would would women sing songs to birds?  All of the birds Rafael Karsten names are what biologists call mixed flock fruit eaters:   birds of many different species that travel through the forest together feeding on fruits.   For Amazonian people these birds are uncanny, because, although of many different species, they are attracted to each other and travel together in relative harmony.   In fact their diversity appears to be the reason for their harmony.   They get along only because they do not compete for the same space.  Rather each occupies a slightly different echo-niche, a slightly different range, a different level of the canopy.  The diverse places occupied by the species are related symbiotically.  For example, toucans feeding higher in the trees drop fruit to the ground where it is eaten by trumpeters.

    Furthermore the different species seem bound together by an attraction to each other’s voices and beauty in a way that resembles the attraction between men and women.  

Each species has another species to whom it is attracted.  The orioles, for example seem irresistibly attracted to the sound of the toucan’s voice.  If the toucan calls they come. As long as they hear the toucans they feel safe.   Because of this the toucan is called the “misha” of the oriole.  But like every bird species the toucan has its own “misha.”   It has a sometimes fatal attraction to the sound of a cotinga or an acangau.  When the acangau calls the toucan comes.  As long as the acangau does not see the hunter the usually wary toucan will let down its guard.

For this reason the relationships of attraction between the birds works well as a framework for thinking about the perils of attraction between human beings.

A misha refers to an asymmetrical relationship of attraction between one species and another in which the misha exerts a nearly irresistable power of attraction over another.   Although a species may be the misha of another species there is another species that is its misha.  The misha relationship is thus a vertical relationship.   Arrows indicate the direction of attraction.  The misha relationship is frequently employed in hunting, gardening, or love anen.   In the song the singer identifies with either the misha or the species being attracted by the misha. 

akangau   (misha of the sicuanga)

sicuanga  (toucan) (misha of the chullu mangu)

chullu mangu  (Russet-backed orpendola  misha of the mangu and many smaller birds)   (ñaña horizontal relationship)      chiu  violaceous jay

mangu  (oriole species)