How the king of birds was chosen: and other Mayan folk tales
Long before Columbus “discovered” the New World, three great Native races–Maya, Aztec and Inca–inhabited Central America. Today, the Mayas still live in the region, where for centuries they have handed down legends about birds and other animals. Wildlife ecologist Anne LaBastille first heard some of these tales from a native Yucatecan and naturalist named Ramon Castillo Perez, who in turn heard them in remote villages. On these pages, LaBastille shares five such stories, adapted from her book Birds of the Mayas. The tales probably date back to pre-Columbian times, revealing an ancient art of birdwatching and appreciation.
Long ago, in Maya Land, flowers, birds, trees, butterflies and mammals appeared in other colors and shapes than those of today. Halach-Uinic, the Great Spirit, guarded over all the Maya World. His will was law. One day, he grew tired of the constant chatter and fighting among the birds. At a meeting in the center of the forest, he announced that the birds must choose a king to keep peace.
Of course, each bird thought it possessed the best qualifications. Col-pol-che, the cardinal, sang, “Look at me. No one else is bright red and so beautiful. All the birds admire me. I should be king.” And he strutted in front of the impressed bird audience, fluttering his wings and raising his crest.
X-col-col-chek, the tropical mockingbird, trilled out, “I’m the only bird with such a lovely voice. Everyone listens to me.” Enlarging his throat, X-col gave a short performance of enchanting and complicated melodies. This was a tremendous sensation among the birds and went far in convincing them that the mockingbird should be king.
Then the wild turkey, Cutz, strode into the circle and gobbled, “There’s no doubt that I should be king because I’m the biggest and strongest bird. With my size and strength, I can stop fights and also defend any bird. You need a powerful king. I’m the one!”
And so, throughout the day, various birds displayed their qualities. The only one that kept quiet was Kukul, the quetzal. This bird was very ambitious and proud. He had elegant manners and a graceful body, but his plumage was shabby. Kukul thought it would be impossible to be chosen as king while he was dressed so poorly.
After thinking carefully, he flew over to his friend, Xtuntun-kinil, the roadrunner. “I want to make you a proposition, my dear friend,” he said. “Your feathers are as handsome as any bird’s here, but you are too busy with your work as messenger of the roads to become king. Also, I don’t think you possess quite the flair and sophistication that is necessary for this job. I’m afraid I can’t loan these qualities to you, but you could loan me your feathers just for this occasion. After I’m elected king, I’ll share the wealth and honors with you.”
It was a tempting offer, yet the road-runner did not feel too eager to part with his plumage. Kukul kept persuading and assuring Xtuntun of his integrity and fine intentions. He painted bright visions of the riches to come. At last, he convinced his trusting friend.
One by one, the feathers disappeared from Xtuntun’s body and the clever quetzal adjusted them to his own. Within minutes, they had multiplied and grown so that the ambitious bird was attired in the most splendid costume imaginable. Kukul’s tail hung in a sweeping curve of jade green plumes. His body shimmered with soft, iridescent hues of blue and green like the Maya sky and jungle. His breast blazed with the colors of a tropical sunset. And his beak turned yellow as corn.
Swinging his exquisite 4-foot tail in an arc, the bold bird promenaded into the circle where the birds of Maya Land were congregated. His entrance caused a hush. Then cries of, “Bravo,” “Hurrah,” “Oh” and “Ah” filled the forest.
Halach-Uinic was very pleased with the miraculous change from the quiet, drab bird to this radiant, proud creature before him. Calling the audience to order, the Great Spirit declared, “I name the quetzal to be king of the birds.” A loud applause followed this announcement and each bird hopped over to the quetzal with congratulations. Finally, they all flew home and left Kukul to begin his new duties. He found himself extremely busy, so he never had time to return the borrowed feathers. In fact, he forgot all about his promise to the roadrunner.
One day, a group of birds noticed that the roadrunner had not appeared in several days. In fact, no one had seen him since the great election. They began to suspect Kukul of some trick, so they organized a search. Deep in the forest behind a bush, they found Xtuntun-kinil, naked, trembling with cold and almost dead of hunger. Quickly, the birds gave him some balche (honey drink) to help him recover.
When he was able, the roadrunner told them of the cruel deception played by the quetzal. He kept saying, “Puhuy? Puhuy?” which means “Where is he? Where is he?” in the Maya language. All the birds felt sorry for the roadrunner and decided each should donate a few feathers to cover him. The mockingbird even sang a jolly song to raise the courage of the embarrassed bird.
That is why today the roadrunner’s feathers are so oddly colored and varied in pattern, and why he always watches the Maya roads. He is still searching for the quetzal that took away his plumage and still running anxiously in front of travelers asking, “Puhuy? Puhuy?”
RELATED ARTICLE: How the Mockingbird Became the Best Singer
When x-col-col-chek, the mockingbird, was young, her family was very poor, and she could only dress in dingy feathers. Since she was hatched, however, X-col had displayed a magnificent voice. She wanted to take singing lessons but could not afford them.
The mockingbird was fortunate to obtain work with a rich and noble family of cardinals. That winter, a famous singing professor, Dr. Xcau, the melodious blackbird, came to Maya Land. The father cardinal immediately imagined that his daughter, Col-pol-che, could become a fine singer. She was lazy, vain and hated to study. But by promising her many fine gifts, the father convinced her to try singing lessons.
When Col-pol-che went with Dr. Xcau to a quiet part of the woods to begin her music course, X-col followed and hid in the bushes to listen and learn. Then she raced back to finish her chores. For weeks, the professor tried to make the girl cardinal sing sweetly, but without success. He soon realized she had neither the voice nor the ambition. He was afraid to tell her wealthy father after such a long time, having accepted a lot of money. So, he finally flew far away and forgot the whole affair.
Meanwhile, X-col had been practicing. One morning, Col-pol-che happened to hear her and was very surprised at her little maid’s ability. That same day, the father cardinal decided his daughter should give a concert for their friends. The indolent girl was terrified, yet she dared not tell her parents that she couldn’t sing. She thought of the mockingbird’s lovely voice and decided to ask her for help.
The two birds asked Colonte, the woodpecker, to bore a hole into the tree trunk where Col-pol-che would perch. Then the mockingbird would hide inside. While Col-pol-che pretended to be singing, the real voice would come from X-col within.
On the day of the concert, all the nobles, singers, artists and musicians among the birds came. Col-pol-che hopped out on a limb of the purple-flowering tree chosen by her father, bowed to the audience and opened her bill. The most exquisite voice ever heard in the Maya World came pouring out and echoed through the woods. The birds in the audience flapped their wings and cried for curtain call after curtain call.
The father, however, was not applauding He had discovered the truth just before the concert began when he saw X-col crawl into the little hole. When the applause ended and the cardinal finished many bows, her father flew up beside her and asked for silence. He hopped over to the hole and called the mockingbird to come out.
The small, colorless bird was trembling with fright, but Col-pol-che’s father gently led her to a perch in front of the entire audience. Then he explained that his daughter had tricked everyone, including him. “It was really this shy little `nightingale’ who sang the whole time,” he announced.
The crowd went wild and demanded that X-col sing again. This time, outside and free of her fright, the mockingbird sang as never before and won every bird’s heart. From that time on, all her descendants inherited her lovely voice, but the cardinals have never learned how to sing.
RELATED ARTICLE: Gift to the Hummingbird
Tzunuum, the hummingbird, was created by the Great Spirit as a tiny, delicate bird with extraordinary flying ability. She was the only bird in the kingdom who could fly backwards and who could hover in one spot for several seconds. The hummingbird was very plain. Her feathers had no bright colors, yet she didn’t mind. Tzunuum took pride in her flying skill and was happy with her life despite her looks.
When it came time to be married, Tzunuum found that she had neither a wedding gown nor a necklace. She was so disappointed and sad that some of her best bird friends decided to create a wedding dress and jewelry as a surprise.
Ya, the vermillion crowned flycatcher, wore a gay crimson ring of feathers around his throat in those days. He decided to use it as his gift. So he tucked a few red plumes in his crown and gave the rest to the hummingbird for her necklace. Uchilchil, the bluebird, generously donated several blue feathers for her gown. The vain motmot, not to be outdone offered more turquoise blue and emerald green. The cardinal, likewise, gave some red ones.
Then, Yuyum, the oriole, who was an excellent tailor as well as an engineer, sewed up all the plumage into an exquisite wedding gown for the little hummingbird. Ah-leum, the spider, crept up with a fragile web woven of shiny gossamer threads for her veil. She helped Mrs. Yuyum weave intricate designs into the dress. Canac, the honey bee, heard about the wedding and told all his friends who knew and liked the hummingbird. They brought much honey and nectar for the reception and hundreds of blossoms that were Tzunuum’s favorites.
Then the azar tree dropped a carpet of petals over the ground where the ceremony would take place. She offered to let Tzunuum and her groom spend their honeymoon in her branches. Pakal, the orange tree, put out sweet-smelling blossoms, as did Nicte, the plumeria vine. Haaz (the banana bush), Op (the custard apple tree) and Pichi and Put (the guava and papaya bushes) made certain that their fruits were ripe so the wedding guests would find delicious refreshments. And, finally, a large band of butterflies in all colors arrived to dance and flutter gaily around the hummingbirds’ wedding site.
When the wedding day arrived, Tzunuum was so surprised, happy and grateful that she could barely twitter her vows. The Great Spirit so admired her humble, honest soul that he sent word down with his messenger, Cozumel, the swallow, that the hummingbird could wear her wedding gown for the rest of her life. And, to this day, she has.
RELATED ARTICLE: Why the Motmot Lives in a Hole
One of the royal birds who lived during the time of the early bird kingdom of Maya Land sported a long, shiny, delicate tail of many colors. Toj, the motmot, looked almost as pretty as King Kukul. He was admired by all the birds for his tail and he never did any work that might harm it. Instead, he flew to the cool depths of the jungle every morning with other royal birds, and there they spent the day, telling jokes and stories. At noon, they might enjoy a light lunch of insects or lizards. Even then, Toj would coax his companions into catching food and bringing it to him so as not to damage his feathers.
One noon, black clouds gathered overhead. Animals darted nervously about, looking for shelter. A strange hush filled the forest, and it seemed that a tropical storm was about to burst. Yum Chac, the rain god, was jubilant, for now he would come down from the skies where he had spent the winter dry season. As he was planning his fun, he remembered that once before such a fierce storm had caused heavy floods. Much of the Maya World had been inundated, and many animals were killed. Yum Chac grew apprehensive, thinking of the damage his storm might do. Immediately, he called an emergency meeting of the birds and explained the danger. Then he made a plan for survival and assigned each bird a task to perform in case of floods.
Some birds were to cut branches for a dam; others were to lift and carry the heavy limbs. Some were to weave grasses and twigs around them to make the dam watertight. The swift messengers were to warn all passersby of the threat. Birds who usually stayed close to the ground were given the job of collecting fruits and seeds of various trees and shrubs for food reserves and replanting if need be. The only one who complained at the hard work was the motmot. “I’m an aristocrat!” Toj exclaimed. “I’m not a laborer.”
The other birds urged the motmot to help. Indignantly, he took his place among the dam-builders. Soon, he was tired and sweaty, being unused to physical work. So he sneaked off into the brush, found a hiding place and slept. Convinced he was well camouflaged, he did not notice that his tail stuck out over a trail where the workers were passing with their loads.
Some time later. Toj woke up and heard the birds singing. The storm had blown over without much harm, and the entire bird kingdom was rejoicing. The noble birds called to Toj. They all flew to their favorite spot in the jungle and began preening and cleaning their plumage. The motmot, as usual, perched on a branch slightly above the others so they might best admire his handsome tail.
Suddenly, the birds began to laugh. They pointed at Toj and said, “Your tail is ruined. You must have damaged it with your hard work.” The motmot peered down and saw two naked shafts sticking out from his body. Only two short tabs of feathers were left at each end. Horrified, he realized what had happened while he slept. The conceited bird could not stand to let his noble friends learn the truth. With his pride crushed, he flapped away to the deepest, darkest part of the rain forest. There, he dug a hole in a bank and crawled inside. To this day, Toj has remained a jungle recluse who shuns other birds and makes his home in a hole.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Mother who Was Too Proud
Long ago, Chick-bul, the and, was a pretty pink bird. Her best quality lay in being an attentive, loving mother. Chick-bul’s closest friend was a small hawk known as Canan-col. The two birds were inseparable. Chick-bul knew that the hawk relished tiny birds for dessert. So, when her first brood of babies arrived, she asked Canan-col not to eat them by mistake. Canan-col promised to be careful.
One morning, the hawk awoke with a great hunger, and it seemed that only a restful of little chicks would satisfy her craving. She told Chick-bul she was going hunting but told the ani not to be concerned about her young. To be sure, she asked for a description of the nest and babies. The ani painted them as being the most beautiful youngsters in the bird kingdom.
Canan-col began her hunt. Flying over an acacia tree, she spied a nest of white, fuzzy, plump little birds. She swooped lower and saw that they were fat, tender and juicy. In fact, they were so pretty, the hawk thought they must be Chick-bul’s children. True to her promise, she left them unharmed and flew on. Here and there she caught an insect. a few lizards, a small snake, but still her craving remained for some baby birds.
Growing tired, Canan-col alighted in another acacia tree. Near the bottom limb, she heard tiny peeps. She hopped lower and discovered a small nest with six black, scrawny, ugly, gaping-mouthed chicks. They were hardly enough to make dessert, but Canan-col gobbled them up and then flew back to join her friend.
At noontime, Chick-bul returned to her nest, carrying seeds and caterpillars for her brood. As she fluttered down, she saw with horror an empty nest and baby down scattered about. Crying in grief, she plucked at her plumage and cursed Canan-col. “What a traitor my friend turned out to be! She broke her promise and ate my poor children.” Chick-bul resolved to find the hawk and attack her. The ani finally found Canan-col dozing in a copal tree. “You traitor! You monster!” Chick-bul screamed. “You broke your promise! My babies are dead and gone!”
Canan-col woke up in shock to see her friend in such a rage. “Why, dear Chick-bul, I kept my word,” she said. “I found your six pretty white birdlets and left them alone. They never even got a glimpse of me to frighten them. I only ate six poor black, little runts that I found later. They couldn’t have been your babies.”
Then the ani realized how much she must have exaggerated about her children, as all mothers like to do. She dragged herself sorrowfully home and put on mourning feathers. To this day, all anis have worn black, and they twitch their tails back and forth in grief.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Wildlife Federation
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