OutDOORs with Coggin Heeringa: Winter Solstice Mythology

I know, I know. It’s probably the El Niño. But the forecast has been for mild (very mild) weather. Of course, soon we will be experiencing Halcyon Days.

Halcyon Days are a period of idyllic calm and tranquility near the Winter Solstice. The term shows up in poetry, once or twice in Shakespeare, and even in modern articles and essays…yet I am always a bit startled when I read it.

Having once dutifully learned the scientific names for bird families, I connect the name “Halcyon” with kingfishers. So what do kingfishers have to do with peace and the Winter Solstice?

According to legend, quite a bit. It seems that in ancient times, people believed that the halcyon – the bird we call a kingfisher – reproduced, not in spring like most self-respecting birds but in the hostile days of early winter and to make things worse, she nested on the sea.

But it seems the gods looked with favor on the halcyon, allowing her the seven days before the Winter Solstice to build her nest and the seven days following it to lay her eggs. Halcycon Days were characterized by calm seas and mild weather.

Curiously, around the Mediterranean Sea and even here in the Great Lakes region, the 14-day period at the onset of winter, often – well, sometimes (especially in El Niño years) – is mild.

The ancients got their nature lore wrong. Kingfishers do not nest at sea, but rather they excavate burrows in banks and they nest in spring when they can find enough food for their young.

Actually, all birds nest when their food is most plentiful. For example, around here, owls nest in late winter because hunting mice is easiest when the snow is melting.

Almost all of our migratory songbirds feed their nestlings caterpillars, so their migration and nesting are synchronized with the insect hatch. It’s a perfect system, except when it isn’t.

Who can forget 2012, when we had summer weather in March? The insects hatched early that year – long before migrating birds reached the Door Peninsula. By the time songbirds arrived, the caterpillars were flitting about as moths and butterflies. And we won’t even talk about the cherries that year.

One of the major concerns of climate scientists is asynchrony, a situation in which biological events that should be synchronized, like the insect hatch and the arrival of migratory birds, no longer happen at the same time. Will bird and insect populations have time to adapt to a changing climate?

Asynchrony is something I’d rather not think about during Halcyon Days. This should be the time of peace and tranquility. Yet for most people, the holiday season is frenzied. Perhaps we should remember that this is the season when “all is calm, all is bright.”

Coggin Heeringa is the Director of Crossroads at Big Creek and Instructor of Environmental Studies at the Interlochen Arts Camp.


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