THE HISTORY CORNER
VISAYAN BIRDS ILLUSTRATED IN 1668
by Christian Perez
I recently came across this book published in 1996 in Madrid, Spain, entitled Historia Natural de las Islas Bisayas. It is a modern edition of an illustrated manuscript text prepared by Father Alzina 350 years ago.
Father Francisco Alzina (1610–1674) was a Spanish historian and Jesuit missionary who served as parish priest in the Visayas for 37 years. In 1631, together with other Jesuit missionaries, he travelled to the Philippines via Mexico and Acapulco. He arrived in Manila in May 1631, where he stayed for about two years to complete his studies until his ordination. After his ordination, he was first assigned in Borongan, Samar, and then in various parishes in Leyte, Cebu and Samar until his death in Manila in 1674.
In 1668 he wrote Historia de Las Islas e Indios Bisayas in two parts. The first part was Historia Natural de las Islas Bisayas while the second part addressed the supernatural and ecclesiastical. The original manuscript is lost but his work is known from a copy made in 1774 by Juan Bautista Muñoz and kept at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace Library).
The book, written in 18th century Spanish, deals in great details with many aspects of the natural world, including geography and climate, as well as plants, vegetables, fruits, trees, flowers, mammals, fishes, reptiles, mollusks, insects, and of course birds. There are 4 chapters on birds: one on the birds that are the same as those found in Spain; one on birds found only in the islands; one on water birds; and one on raptors, night birds and bats. It should be remembered that Alzina was writing long before the concept of taxonomy had been formulated by Linnaeus, and it was perfectly natural at the time to group bats together with birds.
This is the earliest written reference to Philippine birds I have found. It is even earlier than Observationes de Avibus Philippensibus (Observations of Philippine Birds) written in Latin in 1702 by Georg Joseph Kamel, which I believed was the earliest reference when I wrote A Short History of Philippine Bird Books a few years ago (see link below).
The book contains many illustrations of plants and animals sketched by Alzina, of which two represent mostly birds (among other animals). Those two illustrations are shown below. I tried to decipher the captions and relate the images to birds we know today. For each drawing, I repeat the hand-written captions in Spanish, give an English translation, and interpret what the bird might be.
Handwritten captions of plate 16:
- Tabon, ave que pone los huevos mayores que los de gallina (Tabon, a bird that lays eggs bigger than a chicken’s): obviously a Tabon, or Philippine Megapode.
- Gavilan, Banog (hawk, banog): banog is Brahminy Kite in Cebuano.
- Tanginge: most probably what we now call Tanguigue. It shows two men spearfishing from a boat.
- Doco, grullita pequeña (Doco, small crane): it is hard to tell what that bird might be. Definitely not a crane, and it seems too small for a little egret. Possibly some kind of crake or wader.
- Doung, grulla grande (Doung, big crane): obvously not a crane as there were no cranes in the Visayas. Most probably a Great Egret.
- Volador (flyer): it looks like a flying fish
- Batol, pez que se arma (Batol, fish with armor): clearly a pufferfish
- Botete: this is the Tagalog and also Cebuano word for pufferfish
- Tamantaman, casta de patos que pesca (Tamantaman, kind of duck that fishes): it is hard to tell from the drawing what kind of duck that might be.
Captions of plate 17:
- Colabnit, murcielago mediano (Colabnit, middle-sized bat): Kulapnit is Cebuano for a Short-nosed Fruit Bat and other bats species of similar size (Rabor 1986)
- Murcielago grande como lechon, cabog (Bat as big as a lechon, cabog): Kabog is Cebuano for Giant Fruit Bat and other large fruit bat species (Rabor 1986).
- Baboi, jabali mestizo, supr. cap. 2 (Baboi, hybrid wild pig, see chapter 2 above): clearly a wild pig or baboy damo.
- Ayam, perro de aca (ayam, dog from here): the author calls the local dog ayam.
- Tarintin, lechuzas de aca (tarintin, barn owls from here): lechuza is a Barn Owl in Spanish, but the bird does not look like one, and the text in the book describes a very active bird that is almost always in flight, or walks fast on the beach, and when standing, looks around all the time. It is hard to tell what it is. Perhaps a tern?
- Gitgit: gitgit is a Swallow in Cebuano.
- Bocau, hay dos diferentes especies (Bocau, of which there are two different species): bukaw is an owl in Waray language. The two species are probably Everett’s Scops Owl and Luzon Hawk-Owl.
- Tabilalang: the text in the book describes a waterbird smaller than a chicken, whitish, always seen in pairs, that sleeps little and is always on the lookout. I can’t tell what it is from this description.
- Lagartija que vuela (flying lizard).
- Talabong, garzas que son blancas y pardas, con martinete (Talabong, herons that are white and brown, with a hammer): it could be an egret, a grey heron or a purple heron. Martinete seems to refer to the large bill.
See my earlier historical articles in Ebon:
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 1 Early 18th Century
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 2 Remainder of the 18th Century
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 3 Early 1820s to late 1860s
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 4 The 1870s
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 5 1881 to 1899
A Short History of Philippine Bird Books – Part 6 American Period