Birds of Shakespeare: Common Kingfisher (Alcedo Atthis), 2022 (2/75)
Limited Edition Giclee Print
30 x 22 in
Fauna: 4 Common kingfishers, prey: 16 minnows, broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, common darter dragonfly, four-spotted chaser dragonfly, southern hawker dragonfly
Objects: 23 common kingfisher feathers, 8 common kingfisher eggs, 4 rose compasses from The Mariner’s Mirrour (1588)2, the earliest model for the mercury barometer, invented by Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli (1643)3
Occurrences in text: 2 | Plays: 1 Henry VI, King Lear | Name as it appears in text: “halcyon”
The common kingfisher, referred to by Shakespeare as a “halcyon,” is a brilliant blue and orange bird no larger than a billiard ball. If seen in the wild, it is visible as a blue streak of light diving to catch small fish and aquatic insects. In All The Birds of the Air, Francesca Greenoak muses that it merits the name ‘kingfisher’ because it is the king of fishing birds, and because of its royal colored plumage.
The kingfisher needs to see its prey from perches above the surface, so sunny conditions and still waters offer the best hunting conditions. For this reason, they are most active during calm weather, which inspired a theory that the bird attracted a favorable climate.4
This belief inspired a Greek myth that Poseidon kept the waters still for seven days in winter as a courtesy to two nesting kingfishers—the Thessalian princess, Alcyone, and her husband, Ceyx. These two doomed lovers drowned at sea but were resurrected and transformed into seabirds by the merciful gods who admired their love and devotion. In 1 Henry VI, Joan of Arc references to these peaceful “halcyon days” when the kingfisher is nesting:
1 Henry VI, Act I, Scene 2, Line 328
Joan la Pucelle: Assign’d am I to be the English scourge. This night the siege assuredly I'll raise:
Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days,
Since I have entered into these wars.
One of the few kingfisher references is given to the character of Joan of Arc, an antagonist of 1 Henry VI. Joan de Pucelle promises to bring peaceful “halcyon days” to France.
Joan of Arc by Henry Cook, 1837. The Folger Shakespeare Library, LUNA Folger Digital Image Collection, Digital Image 26098
Subsequent myths built upon the legend by attributing even more elemental powers to the kingfisher. Like a rabbit’s foot, a dead and dried kingfisher was a lucky charm that served multiple purposes. The Greeks believed a dried kingfisher would ward off Zeus's lightning.5
Gerald of Wales, a twelfth-century clergyman and historian, stated that the color of a dead kingfisher's plumage would change throughout the year and revive in the spring, like the leaves of a tree.6 Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in the 1187 text Topograhia Hibernica,
that dried kingfishers were handy charms to store inside closets to perfume clothes and repel moths.7
King Lear employed a poetic myth that tidily incorporates the kingfisher’s relationship to weather. If dangling from the end of a string like a plumb, it was believed a dead kingfisher’s beak would point in the direction of the wind like a weathervane.8
King Lear, Act II, Scene 2, Line 1139
Earl of Kent: That such a slave as this should wear a sword, Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these, Like rats, oft bite the holy cords atwain
Which are too intrinse t' unloose; smooth every passion That in the natures of their lords rebel,
Bring oil to fire, snow to their colder moods; Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks With every gale and vary of their masters, Knowing naught (like dogs) but following.
The kingfisher’s legend is remarkable because it provides entertaining anecdotes about Greek mythology and early modern folklore, while also offering legitimate advice for contemporary birdwatchers. To this day, it is easiest to catch sight of a common kingfisher on still bodies of water during ‘halcyon days’ of mild weather.
1 BirdLife International. 2016. Alcedo atthis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22683027A89575948.
2 Ashley, A. Sir., Waghenaer, L., The Mariner’s Mirrour, 1588. (London: H. Hasselup. British Library Board, Creative Commons).
3 Turgeon, A.,, “Resource Library | Encyclopedic Entry: Barometer,” National Geographic, June 19, 2014, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/barometer/. Accessed September 3 2021.
4 Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 275.
5 Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 179.
6 Phipson, E., Animal Lore of Shakespeare's Time, Facsimile ed., (Glastonbury: The Lost Library, 1883), 207.
7 Cambrensis, Giraldus. Topography of Ireland, 1187, ed. Wright, 1813, p. 39.
8 Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 275.