Constellation Noctua, a Galactic Transformation

This is the story of how a little space in the heavens became a bird and, after hopping across several maps, transformed into Noctua, the night owl.

Noctua began life as a space in the heavens, located between the scales of Libra and the tail of the Hydra. That empty space troubled French astronomer Pierre-Charles Le Monnier, so in the 1776 edition of Mémoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, he presented the constellation "Solitaire". Le Monnier wrote that the constellation was in memory of his voyage to the island of Rodrigues off the coast of Madagascar, a trip he took with fellow astronomer Alexandre Guy Pingré and zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson.

At the outset, the image Le Monnier used for the constellation may have been a misunderstanding. According to Ian Ridpath (1989), Le Monnier intended the constellation to represent Rodrigues solitaire, a flightless bird similar to the dodo.  However, Le Monnier never had the opportunity to see the bird because it may have already been extinct at the time of his visit.  The image instead depicts Monticola solitarius, the blue rock thrush (of the family Turdidae), which his traveling companion Brisson had called "the solitaire of the Philippines." This identification became reinforced by the label "Turdus Solitarius" which appears on later maps.

When it came time to add Solitaire to celestial maps, map-makers found its position problematic because the stars Le Monnier used for the formation of the constellation were also used in the constellation Libra.  The first appearance of "le Solitaire" in 1795, illustrated by Jean Nicholas Fontin in Flamsteed's Atlas Coelestis, is depicted with its head overlapping Libra's scale. 

Johann Elert Bode followed this example in 1801 in Uranographia, but unlike Fontin he extended Hydra's tail to provide a sensible perch for the bird to stand upon.

In 1807, British Renaissance man Thomas Young reinterpreted Solitaire as a Mockingbird on his map in A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts.  He also repositioned the bird so that its head ducks under, and no longer interferes with, Libra.

Finally, in 1822 another British Renaissance man, Alexander Jamieson, facilitated Solitaire's ultimate transformation in his Celestial Atlas.  Noctua, the glorious night owl, emerged.  It was an elegant solution to the constellation's problems.  Simply turning the bird in a different direction allowed the constellation to exist independently of Libra.  When asked why he recreated the constellation, Jamieson explained that he thought it was strange that there was no owl in the heavens, especially “considering the frequency it is met with on all Egyptian monuments.”  Noctua persevered, riding the Hydra on all later maps until it was rejected by the International Astronomical Union in 1922.  Now she has returned to her original form, just a small space in the heavens.

10% of the sale of the Astro Owl painting will be donated to Wings to Soar an organization whose mission is to create awareness about the vital role birds of prey play in the natural world. I support them in their mission because their ultimate goal is similar to my own - (from their website): 

Our hope is to facilitate a connection to the natural world and spark curiosity to create a sense of value for all forms of life. Our greatest desire is to create a pathway for stewardship for generations to come.

If you'd like to learn more about Wings to Soar's raptor programs and donate, visit Wings to Soar. 


Leave a comment