As time goes on and as I had expected might be the case, the Bush-crows continue to surprise and perplex me both in their character and peculiarity. This is hardly surprising, however, considering the historic and still very current confusions surrounding the species. Catching birds has proven to be very successful and the sample of individually marked birds is growing nicely, although in the hand they again pose more questions than answers. Theories and ideas are being dropped or disproven as fast as conceived, but such is the beauty of work of this nature.
I am beginning to enter the next phase of my work, which is heavily observation based, aiming to provide baseline data on the time budgeting and habitat usage of the species in relation to the climatic limits that describe their bizarre range restriction. The bush-crows are ground foragers, they walk, or more strut, going about their business with a sense of purpose and diligence quite unlike any other bird I have seen before. Their group habits also make for very entertaining watching as they loaf in the shade of the Acacias almost parrot like, ever curious, and preening other members of the family party. It seems fitting that a bird with such character should exist in this corner of Ethiopia, where it matches the independence of the culture.
The Borana life
'The Borana is like a model for Ethiopian people' I was proudly told by my excellent guide, Jaysu, as we walked through a myriad of termite mounds towards the ceramic coloured round huts with conical shaped tops that typify the villages of the Borana people. The Borana are the ethnic pastoralist group that inhabit a large portion of southern Ethiopia, and in this particular area, are explicitly linked to the survival of the bush-crow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bush-crow lives in close co-habitation with the Borana people, sometimes nesting literally in the heart of villages in tall Acacia trees and foraging in the grassland close by. The qaqa, as it is is fondly referred to, are part of the regional culture as much as the Borana cattle, the rotational grazing habits of which create ideal foraging conditions for the species.
It is evident that there is a deep respect for the rangelands engrained in the Borana mindset, 'It is forbidden to cut down the Acacia' I was told, 'if you cut down the trees that provide you shade, there is no longer a place for people to meet and resolve their problems'. I am also regularly told that the Gada system, a community governance structure that has existed with the Borana for centuries, is the birthplace of democracy and still very much in place today. 'This is the perfect place for community conservation' another guide told me, 'in Borana our resources are shared for the benefits of everyone, the way it has always been'.
Unsurprisingly, a changing human landscape is one of the greatest threats to the bush-crow throughout its tiny range. In this case, however, a change in the traditional practices and land use patterns rather than the destruction of a primary habitat have the potential to push one of Africa's most threatened species towards the brink. On early impressions, I can't help but be encouraged by the familiarity of the bird to the local people and the cultural stance towards the landscape, despite the pressures of agricultural development close by.
As we work throughout the rangelands and associated villages, we are endlessly followed by beaming children and curious elders, asking how our families are and whether we are strong in health. It seems to me that without the vibrant nature of the people and the picturesque beauty of the villages, the Borana rangelands would be missing something considerable.
Fieldwork, wherever it may be, often allows for unique experiences and the opportunity to see areas for prolonged periods that would be difficult to visit otherwise. Working on the bush-crow is as much a cultural study as an ecological one given how intertwined they are with the local people and I can only describe it as an absolute privilege to work in this environment. Every time the sun drops over the rangelands and the evening breeze carries the rich, earthy, Borana smell in its wake is a little bit of magic.
Despite the sincere difficulties for rural people in Ethiopia, there is a permanence and pride in the Borana life that feels tangibly perfect.
Images: All pictures copyright of the author
Previously in this series:
Bush-crow diaries: The mystery of the Abyssinian Pie
Bush-crow diaries: Up close and personal with the qaqa