This Anishinaabe researcher is working to catalog the traditional names of birds

As the birds fly south for the winter, birdwatchers in Windsor-Essex County watch them as part of this popular pastime.

But the challenge for Joe Patawanakwat is greater. He is writing a definitive guide to Anishinaabemowin bird names.

Pitawanakwat recently worked on a Birds Canada brochure that highlights 15 birds with their Anishinaabemowin names. Now he is working on a larger guide with two other people that will catalog as many names as possible in the native language.

« The names all describe different unique characteristics, and sometimes it’s flight patterns, and sometimes it’s nesting behavior and sometimes it’s physical characteristics, » Pitawanakwat said.

« We really want this done as soon as possible so we can start capturing the knowledge that may be left anywhere in Ontario. »

Pitawanakwat, who lives in Peterborough but is from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, teaches herbal medicine. He said his obsession with birds started because he is looking for plants, they can help him find them.

Pitawanakwat, who is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, teaches plant medicine and says the birds help him find the plants he is looking for for his work. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

« They will only land on certain branches. They will only sing above certain ecosystems where they get their food or where they get their nesting materials. So whenever you hear a bird sing, you may have a idea of ​​the plants growing in this area,” he said.

« I use birds to find medicine. »

The current guide, he said, is « a citizen science project designed to go through several iterations over the years. It’s designed to capture the species of birds that we lack to be a resource of sorts, » said Pitawanakwat.

He said they’ve gathered about 150 names so far and hope to at least double that number with the project. Right now, he said, they are looking for funds to spend time on the project.

« It’s not just me writing this. It will be constant consultation with a whole host of knowledge holders who deserve to be compensated for their time on this project. »

  • WATCH | Pitawanakwat teaches common Anishinaabemowin bird names to CBC’s Jacob Barker:


Common Grackle: Asiganaak

Red-winged blackbird: Meskwaanaage

Pitiwanakwat explains the Anishinaabemowin names for Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird. Photos by Kerrie Wilcox. Sound by Wil Hershberger and Bob McGuire courtesy of Macaulay Library.


Goldfinch: Aginjibagwesi

Joe Patawanakwat explains that the American goldfinch is known as the bird that counts the leaves. Photo by Kerrie Wilcox. Sound by Jay McGowan courtesy of Macaulay Library.


Sharp-shinned Hawk: Kekek

Coopers Hawk: Mshikekek

Joe Pitiwanakwat teaches the slight difference between naming a sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk in Anishinaabemowin. Photograph by Michael Evans and bird sound by Andrew Spencer courtesy of Macaulay Library.


Northern Flicker: Mooningwane

Yellow-bellied Woodpecker: Baakwemon

Pitiwanakwat explains that the Northern Flicker is known as the « Digger » and that the name Yellowbelly Sapsucker reflects the fact that it can punch a thousand holes in a tree without killing it. Photographs by Michael Evans and Kerrie Wilcox. Bird Sounds by Mike Andersen and Ian Davies Courtesy Macaulay Library.


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