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The Kingfisher & the Alkyonides days of January

Common Kingfisher

The common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, “Alkyone” in Greek) also known as the Eurasian kingfisher, and river kingfisher, is a small kingfisher with seven subspecies recognized within its wide distribution across Eurasia and North Africa. It is resident in much of its range, but migrates from areas where rivers freeze in winter.

This sparrow-sized bird has the typical short-tailed, large-headed kingfisher profile; it has blue upperparts, orange underparts and a long bill. It feeds mainly on fish, caught by diving, and has special visual adaptations to enable it to see prey under water. Alkyone lives in dense banks of rivers, lakes, fish farms as well as rocky or shingle shores of the seas. Her glossy white eggs are laid in a nest at the end of a burrow in a riverbank. Like most birds it normally lays it’s eggs in spring (5-7 white spherical eggs). It reaches 18 centimeters in length. Her body is unusually small and she has short legs. It’s head is disproportionately large, in relation to the body, with a strong beak that is sharp at the edge. Contrary to its small size, its plumage presents a variety of colors rarely found in other birds.

The Sunny days in January / The Myth

Iris alerts Alkyone in her sleep for the drowning of Kyikas. At the top, cloaked by a cloud, Hera holds a bird in her hands, signaling the transformation of Kyikas.
A plate of Fra Xanto Avelli da Rovigo, 1535, Urbino.
New York, Metropolitan Museum

The ancient Greeks believed that the bird was once Alkyonis, the daughter of King Aiolos, whom Zeus transformed into a bird after her suicide due to the death of her beloved, Kyikas. The love they felt for each other led them to compare themselves with the archetypal divine couple, Zeus and Hera, and they were self-titled with those names, not theirs. The gods punished them, transforming Alkyone into the homonymous fish-tailed seabird and Kyikas into a bird thrusting into the sea to grab its prey, perhaps a seagull. But because Alkyone made her nest close to the shore and the waves destroyed it, Zeus felt sorry for her and ordered the winds to stop for fourteen days, seven before the winter solstice and seven afterwards. During these days, Alkyone incubates her eggs “or so the myth says”. These warm days without bad weather in January were since called “Alkyonides” days.

Another Myth from Greek Mythology says that the Alkyonides were, the seven daughters of Alcyoneus. When their father was slain by Heracles, they threw themselves into the sea, and were transformed into halcyons (kingfishers) by Amphitrite. They were Alkippe, Anthe, Asteria, Chthonia, Drimo, Methone, Pallene and Phthonia or Phosthonia.

The Alkyonides are also small rocky islands in the Corinthian Gulf very close to the coast of Attica, Peloponnese and Central Greece, taking their name from the mythological figures.

Alkyone in search of Kyikas

It is a wild and skeptical bird.

In Greece it reaches about the end of the summer, beginning of September and departs around the end of March. This kingfisher inhabits clear, slow-flowing streams and rivers, and lakes with well-vegetated banks. Tropical populations are found by slow-flowing rivers, in mangrove creeks and in swamps. It frequents scrubs and bushes with overhanging branches close to shallow open water in which it hunts. In winter it is more coastal, often feeding in estuaries or harbours like Chalkida narrow straits. In Evia there have been sightings all over the island, usually near river banks or the winding coastline and along rocky seashores. You are more likely to spot one especially in December and January when temperature drops, and migration to warmer places as far as Morocco and Tunisia is more likely. As it has relatively short wings and flies in straight, low and short distances, mainly larger birds manage to cross the Mediterranean.

There is the myth that Alkyone reproduces in January. But it is only a myth!

The Kingfisher in Evia