The ancient Cherokee’s connection to the “Bird Tribes” is fascinating and we are so fortunate that the elders and medicine men shared their stories with James Mooney in the 1870’s. Here is the continuing account from his book, Myths of the Cherokee.
The raven (kâ’länû) is occasionally seen in the mountains, but is not prominent in folk belief, excepting in connection with the grewsome tales of the Raven Mocker (q. v.). In former times its name was sometimes assumed as a war title. The crow, so prominent in other tribal mythologies, does not seem to appear in that of the Cherokee. Three varieties of owls are recognized, each under a different name, viz: tskïlï’ [also tsigili], the dusky horned owl (Bubo virginianus saturatus); u’guku’, the barred or hooting owl (Syrnium nebulosum), and wa`huhu’, the screech owl (Megascops asio). The first of these names signifies a witch, the others being onomatopes. Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen. If the eyes of a child be bathed with water in which one of the long wing or tail feathers of an owl has been soaked, the child will be able to keep awake all night. The feather must be found by chance, and not procured intentionally for the purpose. On the other hand, an application of water in which the feather of a blue jay, procured in the same way, has been soaked will make the child an early riser.
The buzzard (sulï’) is said to have had a part in shaping the earth, as was narrated in the genesis myth. It is reputed to be a doctor among birds, and is respected accordingly, although its feathers are never worn by ball players, for fear of becoming bald. Its own baldness is accounted for by a vulgar story. As it thrives upon carrion and decay, it is held to be immune from sickness, especially of a contagious character, and a small quantity of its flesh eaten, or of the soup used as a wash, is believed to be a sure preventive of smallpox, and was used for this purpose during the smallpox epidemic among the East Cherokee in 1866. According to the Wahnenauhi manuscript, it is said also that a buzzard feather placed over the cabin door will keep out witches. In treating gunshot wounds, the medicine is blown into the wound through a tube cut from a buzzard quill and some of the buzzard’s down is afterwards laid over the spot.
There is very little concerning hawks, excepting as regards the great mythic hawk, the Tlä’nuwä’. The tlä’nuwä’ usdi’, or “little tlä’nuwä,”) is described as a bird about as large as a turkey and of a grayish blue color, which used to follow the flocks of wild pigeons, flying overhead and darting down occasionally upon a victim, which it struck and killed with its sharp breast and ate upon the wing, without alighting. It is probably the goshawk (Astur atricapillus).
The common swamp gallinule, locally known as mudhen or didapper (Gallinula galeata), is called diga’gwanï’ (lame or crippled), on account of its habit of flying only for a very short distance at a time. In the Diga’gwanï dance the performers sing the name of the bird and endeavor to imitate its halting movements. The dagûl`kû, or white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) appears in connection with the myth of the origin of tobacco. The feathers of the tskwâyï, the great white heron or American egret (Herodias egretta), are worn by ball players, and this bird probably the “swan” whose white wing was used as a peace emblem in ancient times.
A rare bird said to have been seen occasionally upon the reservation many years ago was called by the curious name of nûñdä-dikanï’, “it looks at the sun,” “sun-gazer.” It is described as resembling a blue crane, and may possibly have been the Floridus cerulea, or little blue heron. Another infrequent visitor, which sometimes passed over the mountain country in company with flocks of wild geese, was the gu’wisguwï’, so called from its cry. It is described as resembling a large snipe, with yellow legs and feet unwebbed, and is thought to visit Indian Territory at intervals. It is chiefly notable from the fact that the celebrated chief John Ross derives his Indian name, Gu’wisguwï’, from this bird, the name being perpetuated in Cooweescoowee district of the Cherokee Nation in the West.
Another chance visitant, concerning which there is much curious speculation among the older men of the East Cherokee, was called tsun’digwûntsu’`gï or tsun’digwûn’tskï, “forked,” referring to the tail. It appeared but once, for a short season, about forty years ago, and has not been seen since. It is said to have been pale blue, with red in places, and nearly the size of a crow, and to have had a long forked tail like that of a fish. It preyed upon hornets, which it took upon the wing, and also feasted upon the larvæ in the nests. Appearing unexpectedly and as suddenly disappearing, it was believed to be not a bird but a transformed red-horse fish (Moxostoma, Cherokee âligä’), a theory borne out by the red spots and the long, forked tail. It is even maintained that about the time those birds first appeared some hunters on Oconaluftee saw seven of them sitting on the limb of a tree and they were still shaped like a red-horse, although they already had wings and feathers. It was undoubtedly the scissor-tail or swallow-tailed flycatcher (Milvulus forficatus), which belongs properly in Texas and the adjacent region, but strays occasionally into the eastern states.
On account of the red throat appendage of the turkey, somewhat resembling the goitrous growth known in the South as “kernels” (Cherokee, dule’tsï), the feathers of this bird are not worn by ball players, neither is the neck allowed to be eaten by children or sick persons, under the fear that a growth of “kernels” would be the result. The meat of the ruffed grouse, locally known as the pheasant (Bonasa umbellus), is tabued to a pregnant woman, because this bird hatches a large brood, but loses most of them before maturity. Under a stricter construction of the theory this meat is forbidden to a woman until she is past child bearing.
The redbird, tatsu’hwä, is believed to have been originally the daughter of the Sun (see the story). The huhu, or yellow mockingbird, occurs in several stories. It is regarded as something supernatural, possibly on account of its imitative powers, and its heart is given to children to make them quick to learn.
The chickadee (Parus carolinensis), and the tufted titmouse, (Parus bicolor), utsu’`gï, or u’stûtï, are both regarded as news bringers, but the one is venerated as a truth teller while the other is scoffed at as a lying messenger, for reasons which appear in the story of Nûñyunu’wï (q. v.). When the tsïkïlilï’ perches on a branch near the house and chirps its song it is taken as an omen that an absent friend will soon be heard from or that a secret enemy is plotting mischief. Many stories are told in confirmation of this belief, among which may be instanced that of Tom Starr, a former noted outlaw of the Cherokee Nation of the West, who, on one occasion, was about to walk unwittingly into an ambush prepared for him along a narrow trail, when he heard the warning note of the tsïkïlilï’, and, turning abruptly, ran up the side of the ridge and succeeded in escaping with his life, although hotly pursued by his enemies.