About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why is the Titmouse Tongue So Short?

Many of the Cherokee legends are concerned with birds. Two of the more common birds observed year-round were the chickadee and the tufted titmouse. They named the chickadee tsïkïlilï', a word that imitates the bird’s call and the titmouse, Utsu'`gï, which means “topknot” because of its crested head.
The chickadees and the titmice are closely related, and act alot alike. In winter they forage together in loose, noisy flocks. It’s usually the saucy, loud titmice that takes the lead rather than the chickadees. The Cherokees admired the more subdued personality of the chickadee, feeling it was an honest messenger that accurately foretold the coming of an absent friend or unknown stranger or even an enemy. The titmouse was considered to be a false messenger. For them, it was “The bird that lies.”

These characteristics are embodied in their myth about a terrible ogress named U`tlun'ta, or Spearfinger. This monster could assume any shape or appearance but usually appeared as an old woman, “excepting that her whole body was covered with a skin as hard as a rock that no weapon could wound or penetrate, and that on her right hand she had a long, stony forefinger of bone, like an awl or spearhead, with which she stabbed everyone to whom she got near enough.” With her long finger she would extract the victim’s liver, his essence, and eat it.

After many tries, the Indians finally trapped Spearfinger in a deep pitfall, “but shoot as true and as often as they could, their arrows struck the stony mail of the witch only to be broken and fall useless at her feet, while she taunted them and tried to climb out of the pit to get at them.”

"They kept out of her way, but were only wasting their arrows when a small bird, Utsu'`gï, the titmouse, perched on a tree overhead and began to sing "un, un, un." They thought it was saying u'nahü', heart, meaning that they should aim at the heart of the stone witch. They directed their arrows where the heart should be, but the arrows only glanced off with the flint heads broken."
The Indians caught the titmouse and cut its tongue off, “so that ever since its tongue is short and everybody knows it is a liar.”

Then a chickadee quietly appeared and alighted upon the witch’s right hand as a signal of where her evil heart was actually located. An arrow directed there pierced the vital organ so that she fell dead. Ever since, for the Cherokees, the chickadee has been known as “The truth teller.”

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