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Economic and Social History Blog

27. Halcyon days, and a plea to canonize Eleonora (15-4-2020)

Halcyon days, and a plea to canonize Eleonora (15-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Let me quickly update you about the birds in the garden. The hedge sparrows just had another period of he-chasing-her, so they probably started nesting again, after their previous attempt was aborted. The song thrush is still single – it must be hard to be a single song thrush these days. The blackbirds have to build a nest in the neighbours’ garden, but the magpies have stolen (and eaten) their first chick, Leo, our neighbour, tells me. The blue tits and the great tits are doing fine and probably have chicks as well, but the white cat that visits our garden is paying more than usual attention to the part of the hedge they are nesting in. Life is full of dangers.

A bird that we see very rarely, as a kind of blue flash following the ditch, is the kingfisher – Maarten’s favourite bird. Not far from our house, in Fort Voordorp, Joost Dankers spotted a pair kingfishers a few weeks ago, and the spot has become a favourite place for birdwatchers to check if he and she are still around. It is a small, deep-blue, reddish bird with an extremely large beak, which is more colourful than any other Dutch bird. It sits still on a branch of a tree above the water surface, and then elegantly dives into the water to catch a small fish. The population is rising as the winters have been mild recently. They cannot fish when the water is frozen over, and long, cold winters are therefore their worst enemy.

Aristotle more than 2300 years ago already wrote extensively about them. In Greece the bird was only seen in Autumn and Winter (part of the population migrates). To explain this, it was assumed that it built its nest near or even on the sea, and that the god of the winds, Aeolus, calmed down the seas in order to allow the bird to reproduce. He even gave a detailed description of the nest that could cope with the waves. These halcyon days – days of peace at sea– lasted for two weeks, 7 days to prepare the nest, and 7 days for raising the chicks (which is not much!). This story was repeated by many scholars writing about nature, and it was only during the 17th century, when the Scientific Revolution reached the community of ‘natural historians’, that it was proven to be wrong. The halcyon days remained, however; first as a quiet period during wintertime, and now, more generally, as a happy period in the past.

There is a Mediterranean bird, however, that breeds ‘against the clock’, in September instead of in May, which might be the cause of the confusion. It is Eleanora’s Falcon, which breeds on the islands of Greece and Italy, often on rocks near the coast. Its favourite dish are young song birds migrating to Africa from Northern/Western Europe, and this kind of food supply obviously peaks in late Summer and early Autumn. So they have adapted their breeding behaviour, and, after having enjoyed their share of the young ones of that year, follow in their footsteps, cross the entire continent of Africa, and then all meet up in Madagascar for their annual family reunion.

They were first described as a species by Eleonora of Arborea, queen of almost the entire island of Sardegna between 1383 and 1404 (after bitter fights with her male opponents). She was an enlightened ruler, who all but unified the island, issued a kind of constitution that formed the basis for the island’s polity until 1827, which also strongly strengthened the position of women (they were given the same inheritance rights, for example). She enjoyed falconry, and as part of that hobby became interested in falcons in the wild. She is sometimes seen at the first female birdwatcher and nature lover, a reputation also based on a ban on disturbing falcon’s nests that she instituted – in a way the first example of legal protection of a bird in European history. For these reasons, the falcon has been named after her. Given her unique combination of skills and achievements – pro-nature, pro institutions, pro gender – she deserves much more. I think it is high time that a research institute or an EU grant program is named after her. The EU needs saints (Alan Milward made the point in a different context years ago), and she has the best track record for it.

Continue reading: The Olympics and the Zoetemelk syndrome (17-4-2020)