A tree, a trap and the truth?

Arapuca Bird Trap

I hope this blog will resonate with many and put my mind at rest that there are indeed others out there with a mind that works like mine.  From childhood I was aware of Cockney Rhyming Slang as both my parents came from the east end of London and this gave me a love of sayings, words and phrases.  It also instilled me with a sense of “what does it truly mean” and “why do we say that”.  My shelves are dotted with books that explain sources of superstitions, sayings and such like but there’s always something new that comes along that you can’t find in a book and it sends you on a bit of a journey – and that’s exactly what happened recently.  It all came about with a tree, a trap and, who knows, maybe the truth?

I was reading The New Sylva – a discourse of Forest and Orchard trees by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet.  It’s a tome of a thing but gets its heritage from the works of John Evelyn, who published the original back in 1664, so it’s a great mixture of history and modern understanding.  This particular journey of my mind happened with a single sentence about the Rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia).  The sentence simply said “Its Latin species name, Sorbus aucuparia, comes from avis, meaning ‘bird’, and capere, ‘to capture’, and refers to the traditional use of rowan’s red autumn fruits as bait to catch birds.”  I’ve always known birds love Rowan berries but for me this was the first time I’d questioned how the Latin name had been given and it immediately triggered the thought of bird traps.

Rowan - Sorbus aucuparia
Rowan – Sorbus aucuparia – from the Latin meaning “bird capture”

The trap in question was the arapuca bird trap and I hope you can see why my mind jumped to this one and you’re not just humouring me in a there, there and slowly backing away kind of way.  The similarity to aucuparia was just too close to be coincidence so I fell down a rabbit hole of research.

Arapuca Bird Trap
Arapuca Bird Trap.

The first port of call was a little history about the trap.  This was no easy task as traps of this nature have been used all round the world in various guises and with a variety of names but all with a common goal of trapping birds.  A bit of digging led me to believe that the name arapuca comes from South America and it is certainly in use in Brazil (reference below).  So very quickly I’d gone from Latin words to Latin America and I was fairly confident I was still on a journey to other information.

Before I go too far though I’ll pause just to introduce you to this style of trap just in case this is all news to you.  The arapuca bird trap is a simple pyramid of sticks that are usually tied together or kept in place by a force of pressure under a cross of cordage from one lower corner to the other.  The trap is raised off the ground on one side and held by a trigger mechanism then baited, such as Rowan berries, and left to capture birds when they come in to feed.  When the trap falls the bird is captured live.  It’s such a simple approach so you can certainly see why the theory is found around the world.

Back to my mind journey.  I was left thinking if this was a Brazilian name how on earth did it sound so similar to a Latin word?  I like to think of myself as fairly well travelled but I’ve never been to this part of the world so I had to look up the language spoken in Brazil – and what do you know it’s Portuguese, so that brought me immediately back to Europe.

Now Portuguese, just like English, is a Latin based dialect so it was worth a go to see what arapuca translated into but I wasn’t satisfied with the answer so I kept digging.  I must stress from this point onward this is my theory rather than me offering any proof but it’s a great connection.

The Portuguese word “arara” means Macaw, as in the parrot that can be found in South America which we know from history has been trapped for a variety of reasons but usually with a means of wanting the bird alive for onward sale.  So all I needed now was the “puca” but my first searches didn’t yield the right sounds until I tried the Portuguese for “catch” which is “pegar”.  So I give you the “arara pegar” instead of the arapuca which interestingly does translate from Portuguese to English simply as “trap”.  So next time you call it an “arapuca bird trap” you’re simply saying “trap bird trap”.

Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaw © Ben Lunsford

So there you go, from the Rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia), to the arapuca bird trap, to possibly the truth of its origins.  I hope that little journey into my mind wasn’t too scary to follow but please do let me know your thought processes and any other sayings you love or know the origins of as I’d love to hear them.

Hunting strategies used in the semi-arid region of northeastern Brazil – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1746-4269-5-12

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