Friday, April 18, 2014

Birdlore: The Kingfisher - Halcyon Days

Kingfishers are in a group of birds found throughout all the continents of the world. 

As their name suggests, most Kingfishers eat fish and dive beak first for their primary prey into the rivers, lakes, or streams of their habitat.  The exception would be members of the Halcyonidae family, or Tree Kingfishers, which inhabit more woody habitats and prey mostly on invertebrates and small mammals.

Chadder, the Laughing Kookaburra, is a member of the Halcyonidae family. (photo by Jessica Bunke)
Along with their diverse range, Kingfishers also play many important roles in ancient human cultures.  Among the Native American tribes, the Kingfisher was a messenger, a sign of fertility and good luck, or a master hunter.  Or in one particular legend, a human was changed into the world’s first kingfisher as punishment for thievery.

The Legend of Halcyon and Halcyon Days
In the far past, Halcyon was another word used for those kingfishers that built their nests by the sea.  The term is derived from the name of the Greek goddess, Alcyone.  The Greek legend of Alcyone and Ceyx is most well-known in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a series of books about human transformations to animals from Greek and Roman myths.

Alcyone was a goddess and a daughter of Aeolus, the god in charge of the winds.  She married a mortal king, Ceyx, and the two shared a deep passionate love that even brought the attention of the gods.  At one point, Ceyx decided to make a fateful trip across the sea to consult an oracle of Apollo.  Alcyone pleaded with her husband not to make the journey, as she was terribly afraid of the seas.  Nonetheless, Ceyx left overseas for the oracle.
As it would happen, a terrifying storm overcame Ceyx’s ship, not far from the coast, and he drowned with his ship disappearing into the waves.  Ceyx died whispering his beloved wife’s name on his lips and praying to the gods that Alcyone would know his fate and return his body to her.

After being told in a dream by the god, Morpheus, about her husband’s fate, Alcyone fled down to the coast in grief and despair, where upon she found Ceyx’s lifeless body.  Unwilling to live on without Ceyx, Alcyone threw herself to the mercy of the waves.  Moved by her love and devotion, the gods took pity and saved her by changing her into a Halcyon bird (kingfisher).  As Alcyone embraced Ceyx in her new form, he was then transformed into another kingfisher so the two could now live and be together.

Sacred Kingfisher (
Halcyon Days
In the life to follow, Alcyone would still meet with misfortunate and grief. She made her nest near the shore where her beloved’s body came to rest; stormy waves would come and wash away her eggs every time.  Crying and pleading to the skies, Alcyone begged for a reprieve.

Finally, Zeus was touched by Alcyone’s plight.  Zeus commanded her father, Aeolus, to still the winds of the sea for 14 days in the middle of winter.  So, Alcyone, granted a reprieve, was able to keep her eggs safe until she was done incubating them every winter with calm clear days.

This two week period, surrounding the winter solstice, would become known as Halcyon Days and celebrated by Greeks for centuries in honor of Alcyone and Ceyx.  Halcyon Days is also an expression for a calm, serene, and reflective setting.

May your coming days be of Halcyon Days.

Be sure to visit the World Bird Sanctuary where you may see Chadder the Laughing Kookaburra once our St. Louis weather warms enough for him to be housed outside.  Chadder can be found  in his display enclosure down the walking trail behind the Kathryn G. Favre Wildlife Hospital.  If you're lucky you may hear his distinctive call.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird SanctuaryTrainer

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