Of this bird, the Kingfisher, Aristotle thus discourses:--"The halcyon
is not much larger than a sparrow; its colour is blue and green, and
somewhat purple; its whole body is composed of these colours as well as
the wings and neck, nor is any part without every one of these colours.
Its bill is somewhat yellow, long and slight; this is its external form.
Its nest resembles the marine balls which are called halosachnae
probably a Zoophyte, Alcyonia) except in colour, for they are red; in
form it resembles those sicyae (cucumbers) which have long necks; its
size is that of a very large sponge, for some are greater, others less.
They are covered up, and have a thick solid part, as well as the cavity;
it is not easily cut with a sharp knife, but, when struck or broken with
the hand, it divides readily like the halosachnae. The mouth is narrow,
as it were a small entrance, so that the sea water cannot enter, even if
the Sea is rough: its cavity is like that of the Sponge. The material of
which the nest is composed is disputed, but it appears to be principally
composed of the spines of the belone, for the bird lives on fish."
Pliny says:--"It is a thing of very rare occurrence to see a halcyon,
and then it is only about the time of the setting of the Vergiliae, and
the summer and winter solstices; when one is sometimes to be seen to
hover about a ship, and then immediately disappear. They hatch their
young at the time of the winter solstice, from which circumstance those
days are known as the 'halcyon days;' during this period the sea is calm
and navigable, the Sicilian sea in particular."
"Halcyon days" is used proverbially, but the Kingfisher had another
very useful trait. If a dead Kingfisher were hung up by a cord, it would
point its beak to the quarter whence the wind blew. Shakespeare mentions
this property in King Lear (ii. 1):--
"Turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters."
And Marlowe, in his Jew of Malta (i. 1):--
"But now, how stands the wind?
Into what corner peers my halcyon bill?"