September is for the birds.

Now, Soo Whiting, don’t get your feathers ruffled, I won’t tread on your turf (see column to the right). These birds of September are in the sky but won’t fly away or be found in a Sibley Guide. My birds live in the autumn night sky, immortalized forever by the stars.

Two birds — Aquila the eagle and Cygnus the swan — light up the September night. Early evening brings both birds into view. Aquila is in the southwest sky and Cygnus is overhead in the south in the beginning hours of the darkness. As the moon wanes, they will become even more apparent.

Aquila the eagle earned his way into the sky through his loyalty to Jupiter or Zeus (Roman and Greek gods, respectively). In one version of the story, Aquila was placed in the sky as an honor for his bravery. During wars, Aquila did not shy away from a fight; he boldly carried Zeus’ arrows or Jupiter’s thunderbolts, depending on which myth you follow.

Another legend tells of Aquila’s superior decision-making. When asked by Zeus to find the most beautiful mortal to bring to the heavens to serve as Zeus’ cup bearer, or waiter to the gods, Aquila chose the mortal Ganymede. Zeus was very pleased with this magnificent mortal and rewarded Aquila with a place in the sky.

On the dark side, Aquila was also renowned for eating the liver of Prometheus as punishment for giving fire to humans.

The other heavenly September bird is Cygnus the swan, though in some circles it has been called a hen. This constellation forms a large cross and is also known as the Northern Cross. Its brightest star, Deneb, is the ‘tail of the hen,’ and has the luminosity of 160,000 suns. (Energy conservation is not, apparently, its forte.)

Cygnus’ genesis is disputed (to say the least). One legend has him as the pet of Cassiopeia; another has him as the son of Apollo. Yet another claims that Cygnus was Zeus in disguise trying to seduce Leda, wife of the King of Sparta and mother of Helen of Troy.

An alternative tale occurred during the Trojan War. Cygnus, the son of Poseidon, was so powerful that Achilles could not kill him by conventional weapons and had to smother him to death — but when Achilles tried to retrieve the body, he found that Cygnus had been turned into a swan. In another story, it was Heracles who killed Cygnus, and his father Ares (the god of war) turned him into a swan.

The most complex tale is that the swan is Orpheus, musician and friend of Phaethon (son of Apollo). Phaethon, in his boldness, convinced his father to allow him to take the chariot for a joy ride through the heavens. He could not control the mighty wagon, and was killed by Zeus in order to stop the destruction. The dead body of Phaethon fell into the river Eridinus, and his friend Orpheus dove in to find his body. Though Orpheus searched and searched, he could not find the body. His swimming figure resembled a swan, and he shortly died of grief. Out of pity, Zeus put him in the sky immortalized as Cygnus.

Both of these birds were hunted by Hercules, though he never caught them, or the other celestial vulture, Lyra. These may represent the Stymphalian Birds — the subject of the sixth task of Hercules.

Avian astronomy is my kind of bird watching. Much easier than the subjects of Soo’s Bird News: they are predictable in their appearance and disappearance and will stay put long enough to be identified. At least by us mortals.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.