The Halcyon

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?"