The myth first. Halcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds. She and her husband Ceyx, king of Thessaly (or of Trachis, in some versions), were among the dim bunch (see Niobe, Marsyas, Ixion et al.) who insulted the gods, in this case by comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera. Retribution swiftly followed, and the pair were turned into birds. Another version has Ceyx setting out to sea to consult an oracle; Halcyone finds his dead body washed up on shore. (A myth for our times, sadly.) The gods take pity on her grief and turn them both into seabirds; Aeolus calms the waves for a brief time around the winter solstice so that Halcyone can lay her eggs on a floating nest in peace. Hence ‘Halcyon Days’.
The earliest English version of the myth appears to be in the 1398 translation by John de Trevisa (a native Cornish speaker, BTW) of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum: ‘In the cliffe of a ponde of occean, Alcion, a see foule, in wynter maketh her neste and layeth egges in vii days and sittyth on brood … seuen dayes.’ (De Trevisa also translated Ranulf Higden’s history of the world.)
The European kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, was named Gracula atthis by Linnaeus, Atthis being the subject of a poem by Sappho. (These days, the Gracula family are the mynah birds of India, as opposed to Graculus, the big green bird companion of Noggin the Nog, though Corvus graculus is the alpine chough.) The Alcedo genus in the Alcedinidae family in the order Coraciiformes has ten species, of which only Alcedo atthis is found in Europe. (Ceyx is another genus of kingfishers, as is Halcyonidae, the tree kingfishers of Asia and Australasia, which include the kookaburra.)
But we often refer to the European kingfisher as the halcyon, in spite of its being a river-, not a sea-bird, and to halcyon days as any period of calm. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, Jeanne La Pucelle says: ‘Assign’d am I to be the English scourge. / This night the siege [of Orleans] assuredly I’ll raise: / Expect Saint Martin’s summer, halcyon days, / Since I have entered into these wars.’ (Pure coincidence that in G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan there is much talk of kingfishers on the Loire?)
The kingfisher’s association with calm weather also appears to have turned it into a sort of weathercock. Sir Thomas Brown, quoted by John Brand (Vol. 2, p. 551) says ‘that a King-Fisher, hanged by the Bill, sheweth us what Quarter the wind is, by an occult and secret propriety, converting the Breast to that point of the Horizon from whence the Wind doth blow, is a received opinion and very strange – introducing natural Weathercocks, and extending magnetical positions as far as animal natures’. Shakespeare knew this belief too: he has Kent say in King Lear: ‘Such smiling rogues as these, … Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks / With every gale and vary of their masters, / Knowing nought, like dogs, but following.’
In my first sixty years, I had seen a real live kingfisher precisely twice: once in the 1950s on the Portchester Road viaduct near Fareham, Hampshire, sitting on a railing within feet of the passing traffic, and once in the 1970s, at the riverside at Ely.
Since then, I have followed one down the river Wear below Durham Cathedral;
but I can now see them more or less at will, since in the last twelve months some kingfishers (a proper birdwatcher friend of mine has seen three simultaneously) have taken up residence along Hobson’s Brook on Trumpington Road, Cambridge, and can be seen regularly on the pathway (again, as traffic whizzes past), in the Botanic Garden, and down Senior Wrangler’s Walk.
I saw one twice on Tuesday, or possibly two birds once. The first time, I was emerging from the Bateman Street gate of the Botanic Garden with a view to walking up to one of the regular perches, when a kingfisher, which must have been sitting very close, flashed past. I did a little dance of frustration (which I felt the need to explain to a bemused passing lady), and set off down the brook. Some time later, I caught another glimpse, inside the Gardens, but could spend no more time on the hunt, as I had to get home to let the plumber in. (Such is the glamorous life of the retired person.)
It is surprisingly difficult to describe a kingfisher: the straightforward, prosaic way is to say that it is about the size of a sparrow (much smaller than you’d think), but with quite different proportions: a big head and a short tail. ‘It has blue upperparts, orange underparts, and a long bill’, but that doesn’t do justice to the colouring. Orange, or bright chestnut, or dark saffron? Not blue, but perhaps somewhere between lapis lazuli and turquoise, the wings scattered with pinpricks of a lighter colour which also appears on the back and tail, and the head mottled light and dark, like a blue-green snakeshead fritillary?
Likewise, I have had no success in photographing one: they are simply too quick for my ineptitude and my phone camera. I have a sequence of shots where I know there is a kingfisher in there somewhere, but nobody else can see it: this one (taken by Him Indoors) at least shows the bird as a blob in the centre.
Thomas Bewick’s amazing skill and deep understanding produced a wonderful image in Volume 2 (1804) of his History of British Birds:
The Ladybird Book of British Birds (the real thing, not some sort of trendy post-modernist ironic version) has the kingfisher on the cover as well as inside:
Other artistic responses range from François L’Anglois’ Livre de Fleurs of 1620:
to the superb Matt Sewell.
The most spectacular recent image of a European kingfisher, which went (as they say) viral on social media late last year, was taken by Scots photographer Alan McFadyen. It took him six years and about 720,000 shots. I think I have some way to go, but it will be fun trying …