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Halcyons and their Biographers, edited by Andrew Lang


Some of the old writers, such as Pliny, Plutarch, Ovid, and Aristotle, tell a pretty story about a bird called the halcyon, which flew sporting over the seas, and in midwinter, when the days were shortest, sat on its nest and brooded over its eggs. And Neptune, who loved these small, gay-plumaged creatures, took pity on them, and kept the waves still during the time of their sitting, so that by-and-bye the days in a man’s life that were free from storm and tempest became known as his ‘halcyon days,’ by which name you will still hear them called.

Now after a careful comparison of the descriptions of the ancient writers, modern naturalists have come to the conclusion that the ‘halcyon’ of Pliny and the rest was no other than our beautiful kingfisher, which flashes its lovely green and blue along the rivers and cascades both of the Old World and the New. It is now known that the kingfisher is one of the burrowing birds, and that it scoops out in the sand or soft earth of the river banks a passage which is often as much as four feet long and grows wider as it recedes from the water. It feeds upon fish, and fish bones may be found in large numbers on the floor of the kingfisher’s house, which, either from laziness or a dislike to change, he inhabits for years together. His eyes are wonderfully quick, and he can detect a fish even in turbulent waters from the bough of a tree. Then he makes a rapid dart, and rarely misses his prey. No bird has been the subject of so many superstitions and false stories as the kingfisher, which attracted much attention from its  great beauty. Ovid changes the king of Magnesia and his wife Alcyone into kingfishers, Pliny talks of the bird’s sweet voice (whereas its note is particularly harsh and ugly), and Plutarch mistakes the sea-urchin’s shell for that of the halcyon. Even the Tartars have a story to tell of this bird, and assure us that a feather plucked from a kingfisher and then cast into the water will gain the love of every woman it afterwards touches, while the Ostiacs held that the possession of the skin, bill, and claws of the kingfisher will ensure the owner a life made up of ‘halcyon days.’