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SOME birds are interesting from the peculiarity of their habits, others from their usefulness tó man, and many excite our notice by the beauty of their plumage. Amongst the latter we must place those brilliantly coloured birds which ornithologists call halcyones, and the popular voice kingfishers. The lover of scenery, and all who delight in woodland music, will not regard this bird with the favour bestowed upon the thrush and the nightingale; but none can fail to admire the appearance of the kingfisher when it darts from the bank of a silent and secluded stream, and skims the surface of the waters like a rainbow-coloured spirit of the river.

Sudden is the appearance of this bright creature, and short the time of its meteor flight, as the wings gleam in the rays of the setting sun. This is indeed the only British bird which can be compared with the richly-coloured foreign species, as in general our friends of the feathered kingdoin are rather remarkable for the sobriety of their plumage. Much of this beauty in the kingfisher depends upon the variation of the colours during the bird's rapid flight, some of the feathers, which appear green when viewed at one angle, presenting a vivid blue when seen at another inclination. As the position of the bird changes every moment during motion, the angle under which we perceive it varies constantly; and this accounts for the succession of rapid changes in the colours, which render the solitary halcyon an object of so much interest when seen under favourable circumstances. As this beautiful creature delights in a calm sky and bright weather, it is generally seen in those times which are fitted for the display of its rich colours.

Such a spectacle cannot fail to delight all whose hearts retain the sensibility to visible beauty, from which so many of our noblest feelings spring:

The following lines, from a published ornithological work, express the feelings produced by such an appearance of this beautiful bird :

“ The halcyon flew across the stream,

And the silver brooklet caught the gleam;
The glittering flash of its dazzling wings
Was such as the gorgeous rainbow flings
In broken rays through the tearful sky
On a sunny eve in bright July;
This radiant sheen the trees between,
Like the spangled scarf of a fairy queen,
Was rich to the view as the gayest hue
Of the brightest flower that ever grew.”

Many persons suppose the kingfishers to be less numerous than facts warrant us in believing, for some of these birds are almost sure to be found by a careful naturalist, who is not content with studying nature in his library only, but searches for the bright creatures of the feathered kingdom on wild heaths and by the sides of secluded waters. To such the halcyon often reveals the flashing brightness of her fairy-coloured wings; and this not only near the less frequented streams, but on the banks of navigable rivers, where the busy barge slowly cuts the waters, and the song of the boatman mingles with the many sounds of rural life. It is not uncommon to find the balcyon's nest near a populous village, or even in the neighbourhood of a large town, though we admit that the bird does not usually select such localities.

As the habits of the kingfishers are solitary, the birds are never seen in

groups; and even when one is observed, the rapid motion in which the halcyon delights prevents any long-continued notice. It is but for a moment the bright vision gleams forth, when it is again lost in the hollows or trees on the banks.

The beautiful plumage of this bird must not, however, lead us to mistake their habits; for, though most would gladly connect gentleness with beauty, such a union is not always allowed by nature, and certainly these qualities have not been combined in the kingfisher. Neither the eagle nor the hawk is more inclined to destroy life than the halcyon, which does not limit its fierce attacks to fish only, but preys with a determined spirit on the small insects which abound near our streams. Minnows, and the smaller species of fish, are, of course, the principal food of these birds, which sit quietly upon some overhanging branch till the approach of a fish or water-beetle, when the kingfisher suddenly pounces upon the victim, seldom failing to pierce it with the long and powerful beak. If the prey be a small fish, this is quickly killed, and then swallowed with the head foremost; the food is then carried to the nest, where it is placed before the young,

should it be the season for nestlings.

The kingfisher may sometimes be observed to hover like a hawk over some particular part of the water, watching for an opportunity to strike its prey. It is then that the brilliant colours of the bird are most distinctly seen; but such opportunities are not often afforded, as the bird prefers watching from a tree or bush for the appearance of food, and is, in such cases, only visible as it pounces from its station to the water, and darts back to the shelter again.

The nests which have been long used are found strewed over with the bones of the fish eaten by the occupants; but there is, of course, no ground for the old notion that the nests are actually formed from bones. Indeed, the spirit of ancient fable concentrated its romance around the kingfisher's nest, which the poets of the olden ages described as formed to float on the waters of the ocean like a bird-boat of wondrous make. Not only the poets and men of pure imagination thus believed and spoke, but the logicians and historians of Greece and Rome received without hesitation the strange tale. Thus we find the learned and great Aristotle, whose authority ruled for ages over the strongest minds of Europe, describing this supposed nest. What a puzzle it had been to the philosopher if his pupil, Alexander the Great, had insisted upon seeing one of these nests. Aristotle not only states that the nest was thus singularly formed, but actually specifies the fish or marine animal from which the halcyon's house was reared.

The real facts connected with the nest of the kingfisher are very different from those which old romance once imagined to exist, and adorned with her poetic wreaths of everlasting Howers. Were the reader to examine such a nest, he would probably find it placed at the extremity of a deep hole in the bank of a river, which it has excavated with its beak in the solid earth. Of course many bones will be found therein, but these are only the remnants of the bird's dinners, and form no part of the nest itself. Sometimes the bird finds a house ready-made, and takes possession of some deserted rat-hole, in which it soon prepares a lodging, forgetful of the fate of the former tenant.

“ Then there is nothing wonderful in the kingfisher's nest after all,” some romantic reader may exclaim, as he or she (the latter most likely) sighs over the loss of the old fable of the floating nest. All we can say is, that we are bound to describe the nest as it is; and though we should be happy to furnish a description of a flying ox, a winged crab, a fiery dragon, or any similar marvels, did nature permit, yet we must refrain until the happy moment when specimens of such creatures are discovered. So must we deal with the fabulous nest of the kingfisher, rejoicing that the error has been detected, rather than lamenting over its departure.

The superstitions of the ancients did not rest satisfied with these tales respecting the nests of the kingfisher, but were also busily occupied with the bird itself.

There is something of poetic beauty in the wild fable which ascribed to the halcyon a power of hushing the tempest, and lulling the swelling waves, by its presence. Firmly did the ancients believe that, for about fourteen days in the depth of winter, when this bird's nest was launched upon the waters, that the storms were hushed into the calmness of summer, lest the precious nest of the mysterious halcyon should perish. Numerous allusions to this romantic notion are found in the old poets, and even in our times a period of peace and prosperity is not unfrequently called “ halcyon days.” This very phrase is thus used by Shakspeare himself, who, in the first part of his Henry VI., represents Joan of Arc encouraging the almost despairing nobles of France by bidding them to “ expect St. Martin's summer, halcyon days.” In another poet we hear the same idea expressed in the following musical stanza:

“ Blow, but gently blow, fair wind,

From the forsaken shore,
And be, as to the halcyon, kinde,

Till we have ferried o'er." Even the meditative Cowper does not disdain to adorn his verse with the beauties of the old fable, and speaks of the “ peace-loving halcyon” with all the unquestioning fervour of a poet's belief in the mysterious.

The general feeling of the ancient Greeks on this subject are expressed in the words of Theocritus, who taught men more than two thousand years ago to study the musical voice of nature, as heard amid forests and groves, by the sides of rivers, or along the shores of the ever-speaking ocean. This poet thus speaks in the translation of Mr. Fawkes :

May halcyon smooth the waves, and calm the seas,
And the rough south-east sink into a breeze;
Halcyons, of all the birds that haunt the main,

Most loved and honour'd by the Nereid train.” With such a belief in their minds, the sailors of Athens and the early navigators of the Ægean naturally regarded these birds as the favourites of the divinities under whose control the elements


were supposed to act. Nor were the more practical Romans less influenced by the fable than the imaginative Greeks of old, for Ovid, who enriched his verses with treasures from the whole world of ancient romance, sings of the seven tranquil days during which the halcyon broods upon the waters.

What was the origin of so strange a fable? That question cannot be answered, unless the inquirer rest satisfied with guesses, which would but be substituting new fables in place of the old. But the ancients had their guesses, which, though deficient in philosophy, were not without a certain rich colouring of fancy, softened down by the poetic melancholy which the student so often finds in the fables of antiquity. Let us listen, then, for a minute to the oracles which supplied the olden poetry of the world with its fairy creations.

They tell us that Halcyon was a lady, even the daughter of king; that she married, and, losing her husband by a storm which wrecked his vessel, became maddened by the calamity, and threw herself into the sea, that she and the object of her love might find a rest in the same element. The divinities beheld her woe, and compassionated her sorrow-stricken heart, but to restore the dead was beyond their power; one thing, however, they could do, they revived the lovers, not in the forms of mortals, but in those of the birds since called the halcyons. So runs the ancient fable, the knowledge of which may impart a higher degree of interest to the history of the kingfisher.

Some degree of superstition still attends this bird; for the peasants in some parts regard it as a sure weather-index, believing that if the bird be suspended by a thread from the roof, the beak always points to the place whence the wind blows.

The country people who possess such a curiosity in their cottages maintain most stoutly that the beak does thus indicate the direction of the wind; but we are neither prepared with evidence to rebut nor to confirm these statements. We must therefore be silent on the matter, neither questioning the assertion of others, nor making any of our own.

This bird is not confined to Europe, several species being found in both Asia and Africa; these, however, differ from our British halcyons, being less brilliant in the colours of their plumage. This is, therefore, a clear exception to the usual course of things; our British birds being in general less noted for the beauty of their colourings than the richness of their notes.

Some ornithological student may here ask whether the kingfisher is classed with the water-birds, and, if not, in what quarter of the feathered kingdom it is arranged ? It is not placed with the aquatic members of the feathered tribes; for, though the bird plunges upon the water to secure its prey, the feathers have not the qualities peculiar to those of the true water-birds. Neither do the halcyons resemble aquatic birds in their swimming or div

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