Friday 3 September 2021

"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" by Karen Maitland

'Looking for Fish' A common kingfisher in England
Photo: Tony Wood

Have you noticed that animals and birds never seem to read the books about how they are supposed to behave? According to the bird books, kingfishers like clean water, yet for months I daily watched one pair fishing in a filthy, muddy ditch next to a busy main road, apparently shunning an ideal river and lake less than half a mile away. But curious behaviour aside, there is no doubt, kingfishers are beautiful creatures, who have inspired many poets – 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flames,’ - Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

It was the rainbow gave thee birth,' - ‘The Kingfisher’ William Henry Davies (1871-1940)

But in medieval and Tudor times kingfishers were not simply admired, they were caught and killed to be used in the house. Also known as halcyons, these unfortunate birds were thought to be able to predict the wind direction when dried and hung up. Many Tudor houses had a dead kingfisher dangling from the rafters as an internal weather vane and they were also used for this purpose on board ships. 

A lytle byrde called the kingfisher, being hanged in the ayre by the neck; his nebbe or byll wyll be always dyrect and strayght againt ye winde.' Thomas Lupton, 1579

And both Shakespeare and Marlowe refer to this practise. 

How stands the wind? Into what corner peers my halcyon’s bill?’  Chrstopher Marlowe 

Coming up empty
Photo: Andy Morffew

Even as late 1928, a local historian noticed a dried kingfisher hanging from the rafters in house he visited and was told by the householder that the bird pointed in one direction if the weather was fine, but in the opposite direction if it was wet. 

But halcyons were used for more just weather vanes. Dead kingfishers, if kept in a dry place, were thought never to decay and always smelled sweet, so the dried carcasses of the birds were also placed in chests of clothes, linens and blankets, as they were said to preserve them from moths and decay, and keep give them a pleasant perfume. It was a strange belief since the kingfisher’s nest burrow smells anything but sweet. But beauty was associated with fragrance, and the birds could well have been packed with herbs or spices during the drying process which might have helped.

But the even their ancient name ‘halcyon’ is steeped in history and legend. It comes from the Greek myth of Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. Alcyone’s husband, Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, perished at sea. His wife was so grief-stricken that she drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and turned the pair into kingfishers, so that they could be reunited. It was thought that kingfishers built a nest of fishbones which floated on the sea, into which they laid their eggs. For fourteen days in winter, when the halcyon was said to brood her eggs on the sea, her father, Aeolus, stilled the wind and waves for her. In ancient times, this period of unusually calm weather was known as the ‘halcyon days’. It was believed to occur at the time of the winter solstice, 21st December, and start around 14th December, though later the phrase came to mean any period of happiness, peace and calm.

Success! Kingfisher and fish
Photo: Andy Morffew

In Medieval France and England kingfishers came to be called St Martin’s birds, and were thought to brood their eggs around his feast day on 11th November, which often coincided with a period of calm weather, known as ‘St Martin’s little summer’, which Shakespeare refers to in Henry VI – ‘Except St Martin’s summer, halcyon days.’ St Martin’s summer was said to be three consecutive days of dry, mild weather around the time of Martinmas. This might have occurred more frequently in earlier centuries, but modern weather records show this has rarely happened in the last 100 years. So, perhaps, another bird is a better predictor than the kingfisher of the winter weather now, for as another old saying goes –

'If Saint Matinmas ice can bear a duck,

The winter will be all mire and muck.'

'Chilled Duck'
Photo: Ian Paterson/Chilled Duck/CC BY-SA 2.0

Now that sounds more like a British winter!

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