Halcyon Days


(This column was first published in the December 29, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


The Latin name for our belted kingfisher is Megaceryle alcyon.


That column start surely rivals Bulwer Lytton's (and Snoopy's) infamous "It was a dark and stormy night" as an opener that doesn't encourage you to read on.


But at least my reference is timely.


Timely? Our kingfisher is a rather common summer resident of this region. If you spend a day then alongside any local creek, sooner or later one will come rattling along to give you a quick look at a handsome blue and white pigeon-sized bird with a big bill and a rather ratty hair-do. If you're lucky you'll also see the kingfisher suddenly pause in mid-air, then drop head-first into the water. If successful, it will reappear with a minnow in its beak and fly up to a nearby snag where it will devour its meal.


This time of year, however, is not when you should wait at streamside. A few kingfishers do stay around the region all year. We usually find one along the Canadian side of the Niagara River during our January 1st birding tour. But 99 of 100 head south along with many of our neighbors.


Why then is this the time to write about the kingfisher?


The reason comes from that Latin species name: alcyon. We have an English word that derives from it: halcyon. It is one of those words so favored by SAT examiners. It pops up often enough in literature to make it a kind of stylish "in" word to appear on tests.


For those unfamiliar with the word, halcyon means calm, peaceful, tranquil or, by extension, prosperous.


And I just learned from one of those delightful two-minute Weather Notebook segments on NPR that halcyon days have a technical meaning as well: they are the two weeks around the Winter solstice. That means that they ended yesterday for this year they ran from December 14-28.


Surely someone is joking here: calm? peaceful? tranquil? Not at least here in Buffalo. Snowy and windy, more likely.


Indeed, the name was not coined here but in ancient Greece where Mediterranean breezes don't quite match ours coming off Lake Erie.


The association of the kingfisher with halcyon derives from a Greek myth about Alcyone, the god Aeolus' daughter. Here is how Weather Notebook's Bryan Yeaton tells the story: "She married Ceyx, King of Thessaly, and they were extremely happy.


"Unfortunately, Ceyx died in stormy seas, and, grief-stricken Alcyone threw herself into the ocean. But before hitting the water, she transforms into a bird, enfolding Ceyx's lifeless body with her wings. Feeling her deep grief, the gods changed the couple into kingfishers.


"Ever since, the legend goes, Alcyone carries her dead mate to his burial, then builds a nest and launches it out to sea. There, she lays her eggs and hatches her chicks, brooding over her sea-borne nest for seven placid days before the Winter Solstice and seven calm days after. While she broods, Aeolus himself reins in the wind and sea, protecting his daughter and his grandchildren."


Mariners in particular were taken with that lovely story and continue to predict that those two weeks will represent a period of calm weather.


There are, of course, some difficulties associated with the myth. Even in Europe mid-winter is not a time for kingfishers to nest. And, like ours, their kingfishers do not build floating nests but rather dig holes in embankments in which they raise their young.


More important, the days that are halcyon among the Dodecanese Islands are not necessarily the same along the Bird Island Pier.


It makes a pleasant story though.