The Election of the King Bird: A Folktale of Calabar, Nigeria

Calabar Nigeria - Folkli
Pinpoint Location: Calabar, Cross River State / Map data ©2019 Google

This folktale from Calabar tells the tale of king Essiya, who set out to elect a chief for all the animals in his service. 

Old Town, Calabar, once had a rich and powerful king called Essiya; but although he was wealthy, he did not possess many slaves. He therefore used to call upon the animals and birds to help his people with their work.

In order to get work done quickly and well, he determined to appoint head chiefs of all the different species. The elephant he appointed king of the beasts of the forest, and the hippopotamus king of the water animals. Then it was the turn of the birds to have their king elected.

Essiya thought for some time about the best way to choose, but as there were so many different birds who all considered they had claims he could not make up his mind. There was the hawk with his swift flight, and of hawks there were several species. There were the herons to be considered, and the big spur-winged geese, the hornbill or toucan tribe, and the game birds, such as guinea-fowl, the partridge, and the bustards. Then again, of course, there were all the big crane tribe, who walked about the sandbanks in the dry season, but who disappeared when the river rose, and the big black-and-white fishing eagles. When the king thought of the plover tribe, the sea-birds, including the pelicans, the doves, and the numerous shy birds who live in the forest, all of whom sent in claims, he got so confused, that he decided to have a trial by combat, and sent word for all the birds to meet the next day and fight it out between themselves, and that the winner should be known as the king bird ever afterwards.

The following morning many thousands of birds came, and there was much screeching and flapping of wings. The hawk tribe soon drove all the small birds away and harassed the big waders so much, that they very shortly disappeared, followed by the geese, who made much noise and winged away in a straight line. The big forest birds who liked to lead a secluded life very soon got tired of all the noise and bustle, and after a few croaks and other weird noises went home. The game birds had no chance and hid in the bush, so that very soon the only birds left were the hawks and the big black-and-white fishing eagle, who was perched on a tree calmly watching everything. The scavenger hawks were too gorged and lazy to take much interest in the proceedings, and were quietly ignored by the fighting tribe, who were very busy circling and swooping on one another, with much whistling going on. Higher and higher they went, until they disappeared out of sight. Then a few would return to earth, some of them badly torn and with many feathers missing.

At last the fishing eagle said—

“When you have quite finished with this foolishness please tell me, and I will settle your chances of being elected head chief once and for all.”

But when the hawks saw his terrible beak and cruel claws, knowing his great strength and ferocity, they stopped fighting between themselves and acknowledged the fishing eagle to be their master.

Essiya then declared that Ituen, which was the name of the fishing eagle, was the head chief of all the birds, and should thenceforward be known as the king bird.

From that time to the present day, whenever the young men of the country go to fight they always wear three of the long black-and-white feathers of the king bird in their hair, one on each side and one in the middle, as they are believed to impart courage and skill to the wearer; and a young man without any of these feathers who goes out to fight is looked upon as a very small boy indeed.

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  1. As the king bird is always very difficult to shoot with a bow and arrow, the young men, when they want his feathers, set traps for him baited with rats, which catch him by the foot in a noose when he seizes them. There is a strong belief amongst many natives on the Cross River that the king bird has the power of influencing the luck of a canoe. For example, when a trader, having bought a new canoe, is going to market and a king bird crosses the river from right to left, then if he is unlucky at the market that day, whenever the king bird again crosses that particular canoe from right to left he will be unlucky, and the bad luck will stick to the canoe. If, on the other hand, the bird for the first time crosses from left to right, and he is fortunate in his dealings that day at the market, then he will always be lucky in that canoe the day he sees a king bird flying across the river from the left to the right-hand side.


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