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Volume 15, Issue 24 ~ June 14 - June 20, 2007

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

What’s in a Name?

A good story, if you’re the halcyon bird, our kingfisher

It is June. Gardens and meadows are blooming. It is time to celebrate weddings and graduations. It is a great month, surely one of the top 10 or 12. The days are warm, and the nights are cool. It might be 95 tomorrow, but in my mind these are halcyon days.

Now there is a word for you: halcyon. It is a word rarely encountered outside of bad poems and pretty good nature essays. It means calm, peaceful; a golden time, usually long-past, when all was fair.

Along the creeks and marshes, a loud, uneven rattle is sometimes heard as a dark blue blur streaks over the water. It is the halcyon bird, better known as the belted kingfisher.

To me there doesn’t seem to be anything peaceful or calm about the kingfisher. With its shaggy crests, it looks like a bird having not just a bad hair day but perhaps a bad day in general. The rattling call commands attention; though it might be a welcome sound, it is not soothing.

I consulted Christopher Leahy’s voluminous and authoritative The Birdwatchers Companion to understand why kingfishers are the halcyon birds. He describes the connection as “a fanciful metaphor and bad ornithology.”

Halcyone was a mid-pantheon Greek goddess. Upon the drowning death of husband Ceyx, she threw herself into the sea. The watery pathos aroused sympathy amongst upper management, so to make things a little better the pair was transformed into kingfishers. A legend arose that kingfishers nest on the surface of the sea during a calm period around the winter solstice.

Those times of winter calm were the original halcyon days. Over the last 2,000 years the meaning has expanded to mean any time of year when it is or was peaceful.

Belted kingfishers were given scientific names honoring both of their mythic progenitors: Ceryle and alcyon. Around protected waters across North America, they make their nests in stream and river banks.

Listen for the loud, rattling sound they make in flight and look for them perched on wires or dead branches near the water. Their shaggy heads and heavy bills are huge in proportion to their bodies. Their colors are dark blue and white, and females have a belt of rusty red across their chests. As they hunt for fish, you will often see them hovering for a few seconds before diving and splashing into the water to grab some food.

Belted Kingfisher

Scientific name: Ceryle alcyon

What to look for: Large-headed blue and white birds, nearly 14 inches in length, perched in the open on dead branches, telephone wires, or flying over water.

Where to look: Near water, especially streams and rivers.

Places to go: Calvert Cliffs State Park, Quiet Waters Park.

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