THE ELECTION OF THE KING BIRD

OLD Town, Calabar, once
had a king called Essiya, who, like most of the Calabar kings in the olden
days, was rich and powerful; but although he was so 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 the 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, until at last it came to the turn of the birds to have their king
elected.
Essiya thought for some
time which would be the best way to make a good choice, but could not make up
his mind, as there were so many different birds who all considered they had
claims. 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
ordeal of combat, and sent word round the whole country 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, as if they were playing
“Follow my leader.” 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 if any of you fancy
yourselves at all, come to me, and I will settle your chances of being elected
head chief once and for all;” but when they 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.[1]
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
[1. As the king bird is
always very difficult to shoot with a bow and arrow, owing to his sharp and
keen sight, 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.
Except when they are nesting the king birds roost on very high trees, sometimes
as many as twenty or thirty on neighbouring trees. They fly many miles from
where they get their food, and arrive at their roosting-place just before the
sun sets, leaving the next morning at dawn for their favourite haunts. They are
very regular in their habits, and you can see them every night at the same time
coming from the same direction and flying over the same trees, generally fairly
high up in the air. There is a strong belief amongst many natives on the Cross
River that the king bird has the power of influencing the luck or the reverse
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 be sees a king bird flying
across the river from the left to the right-hand side.]
in the middle, as they
are believed to impart much courage and skill to the wearer; and if a young man
is not possessed of any of these feathers when he goes out to fight, he is
looked upon as a very small boy indeed.

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