Dragons (Draco), hunting dogs (Canes Venatici), giraffes (Camelopardalis), goats (Capricorn), crabs (Cancer), lizards (Lacerta), sea serpents (Hydra) and fish (Pisces) are OK.
I’m definitely not enthused about constellations named air pump, compasses, telescopes, sextant, octant, level or microscope. You can thank Europeans in the Age of Exploration for such noninspired monikers.
And fortunately, 18th century naturalist and satirist John Hall wasn’t in control of the name game. He invented several constellations and named them after socially unacceptable animals, including a slug, a leech and a toad.
They never made a star chart.
This birder has a soft spot for the several bird constellations, even if some are in the Southern Hemisphere.
A constellation is a pattern of stars that represent an animal, object or mythic figure. The Northern Hemisphere’s sky is divided into constellations mostly named by the ancient Greeks who provided story lines, too, although many constellations start in a stew of myths.
They have Latin names because before computers, Latin was the language of learning (just kidding about the computers). The Chinese have their own constellations because they separately developed astronomy.
Other cultures named the patterns that they saw although most of those constellations were not institutionalized through writings and star charts.
The Greeks named 48 constellations, pretty much ignoring the Southern Hemisphere. Today’s count is 88, thanks to the International Astronomy Union. In 1930, the Union set the official boundaries of those 88, so dozens of our constellations are considered “new.”
A side note: The IAU does not recognize the Big Dipper as a constellation, ruling that those seven stars are part of the constellation Ursa Major, making the Big Dipper an asterism.
While Greeks saw patterns, modern astronomers see those constellations as defining segments of the sky.
But back to the bird constellations. They include crane (Grus), Phoenix (Phoenix), tucan (Tucana), swan (Cygnus, also known as the Northern Cross), crow or raven (Corvus), Bird of Paradise (Apus) and peacock (Pavo).
Apus, for instance, is a small constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that was created in the 17th century. In Greek, the word means no feet or without feet.
The Bird of Paradise was once thought to have no feet or, in the eyes of poet John Keats, no legs (“legless birds of paradise”).
If you can’t locate them, any good guide to astronomy should show the patterns and locations, and a little research will provide the background to the names.
Grab a star chart and do a little bird-watching on a starry night.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.