This Anishinaabe researcher is working to catalogue the traditional names of birds

As birders in Windsor-Essex, Ont., observe flocks flying south for the winter, Joe Pitawanakwat is watching them for a special reason: He's writing a definitive guide of bird names in Anishinaabemowin.

Joe Pitawanakwat would like to double the about 150 bird names known in Anishinaabemowin

Four birds in split screen
Some of the birds that Joe Pitawanakwat has researched to give them names in Anishinaabemowin. (Credit Michael Evans and Kerrie Wilcox)

As birds fly south for the winter, birders in Windsor-Essex County are observing them as part of the popular hobby. 

But the challenge for Joe Pitawanakwat is greater. He's writing a definitive guide of bird names in Anishinaabemowin.

Pitawanakwat recently worked on a Birds Canada pamphlet that highlights 15 birds with their Anishinaabemowin names. Now, he's working on a larger guide with two other people that will catalogue as many names as possible in the Indigenous language.

"The names are all describing different unique characteristics and sometimes it's flight patterns, and sometimes it's nesting behaviours and sometimes it's physical characteristics," Pitawanakwat said.

"We really want to get this done as soon as we can so we can start capturing what knowledge is possibly left anywhere in Ontario."

Pitawanakwat, who lives in Peterborough but is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, teaches plant medicine. He said his bird obsession stems from their ability to help him look for plants he needs for his work.

Joe Patawanakwat speaking on zoom
Pitawanakwat, who is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, teaches plant medicine, and says birds help him find the plants he looks for for his work. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"They'll only land on certain branches. They'll only sing on top of certain ecosystems where they get their food or where they get their nesting materials. So whenever you hear a bird sing, you can get an idea of the plants that are growing in that area," he said.

"I use birds to find medicine."

The current guide, Pitawanakwat said, is "a citizen science project designed to carry multiple iterations over the years. It's designed to catch what species of birds we have missing to kind of be a resource."

He said they've gathered about 150 names so far and hope to at least double that number with the project. Right now, he said, they are seeking funding to dedicate time to completing the project.

"It's not just going to be me that is writing this. It's going to be constant consultation with a whole host of knowledge holders that deserve to be compensated for the time they dedicate to this project."

In the four following clips, Pitawanakwat teaches common bird names in Anishinaabemowin to CBC's Jacob Barker:


Common Grackle: Asiganaak

Red Wing Blackbird: Meskwaanaage

'The Sneezers'

12 months ago
Duration 1:29
Pitiwanakwat explains the Anishinaabemowin names for the Common Grackle and the Red Winged Blackbird. Photos by Kerrie Wilcox. Sound by Wil Hershberger and Bob McGuire courtesy of the Macaulay Library.

American Goldfinch

American Gold Finch: Aginjibagwesi

American Goldfinch

12 months ago
Duration 1:10
Joe Patawanakwat explains the American Goldfinch is known as the bird that counts leaves. Photo by Kerrie Wilcox. Sound by Jay McGowan courtesy of the Macaulay Library.


Sharp-Shinned Hawk: Kekek

Coopers Hawk: Mshikekek

Two kinds of Hawks

12 months ago
Duration 0:44
Joe Pitiwanakwat teaches the slight difference between the naming of a Sharp-Shinned Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk in Anishinaabemowin. Photograph by Michael Evans and bird sound by Andrew Spencer courtesy of the Macaulay Library.


Northern Flicker: Mooningwane

Yellow Belly Sapsucker: Baakwemon

Flickers and Sapsuckers

12 months ago
Duration 0:29
Pitiwanakwat explains that the Northern Flicker is known as 'the Digger' and the Yellowbelly Sapsucker name reflects the fact that it can poke a thousand holes in a tree without killing it. Photographs by Michael Evans and Kerrie Wilcox. Bird sounds by Mike Andersen and Ian Davies courtesy of Macaulay Library.


Jacob Barker


Jacob Barker is a videojournalist for CBC Windsor.