Anyone who follows astronomy knows that there are officially 88 recognized constellations in our night sky. But what many don’t realize is that of those constellations, there are quite a few varieties of birds portrayed among them: there is a swan, an eagle, a dove, a crane, a toucan, a peacock, a bird of paradise, and even a mythical phoenix. Over toward the south toward midnight these early spring nights is yet another: Corvus, the Crow.
Next to the famous Sickle of Leo, Corvus is probably the most striking star pattern in the spring southern sky for those living at mid-northern latitudes. It appears as a small, moderately bright quadrilateral-shaped pattern of stars; like a triangle whose top has been removed by a slanting cut. Add a fainter adjoining star and the pattern resembles the battened mainsail of a Chinese junk. Corvus can also be used to positively identify the bluish first-magnitude star Spica, in Virgo. Just follow the direction of Corvus’ slanting top to the east (to the left) and you will soon arrive at Spica.
And an imaginary line drawn diagonally across the quadrilateral from lower right to upper left and extended twice the distance between these two stars will bring you to a brilliant interloper: Jupiter.
The Legend Behind Corvus
Corvus is supposed to represent the unfaithful raven of the god Apollo. The bird was sent out with a cup for some water but, instead, loitered at a fig tree until the fruit became ripe. He then returned to Apollo without the cup, but with a water snake in his claws, alleging the snake to be the cause of his delay. As punishment, the angry Apollo changed Corvus from silvery-white to the black color that all crows and ravens bear to this day. In addition, Corvus was forever fixed in the sky along with the Cup (Crater) and the Snake (Hydra), doomed to everlasting thirst by the guardianship of the Hydra over the Cup and its contents.
Crater, the Cup is a small and rather faint figure, which corresponds quite closely to its name. Its stars outline a goblet, but unfortunately they’re hard to distinguish when the sky is hazy or when there’s a bright Moon in the sky.
Interestingly, when the four-sided Corvus has reached its highest point in its course across the sky, it stands directly above Crux, the Southern Cross, which is also attaining its highest point above the South Pole of the sky. But even at its highest, the Cross remains out of sight below the horizon everywhere in the United States except for the Florida Keys and the southern tip of Texas (around Brownsville). Thus, Corvus reveals the position of a constellation whose name is known to almost everyone though invisible to many of us.
Defunct Bird Constellations
There are a couple of bird constellations that are no longer officially recognized. One of these was Gallus, the Rooster, which was originally conceived on a celestial globe fashioned by Petrus Plancius in 1612. We’re not exactly sure why the name “Gallus,” was chosen to represent a rooster (some also called it a cockerel), but it might have some connection to the Gallic rooster, the unofficial symbol of the French nation.
According to another 17th century celestial cartographer, Jacob Bartsch, Gallus supposedly represented the rooster that crowed after Peter had denied Jesus three times in the canonical Gospels. But while Gallus made it into a few star atlases during the 1600s, it failed to be recognized by the reputable star atlases of Johannes Hevelius, John Flamsteed, and Johann Bode, so it really didn’t gain much of an audience. Perhaps it was because Plancius borrowed some of the stars from Argo Navis, the Great Ship of Jason and the Argonauts to create Gallus. Those stars belonged to the stern of the ship; now Plancius was trying to turn it into a rooster. That just wouldn’t fly!
Lastly, another star pattern which can be found on some older star atlases is Noctua, the Owl. Composed of nearly two dozen mostly faint stars, this night bird was created in 1776 by a Frenchman, Lemonier, in memory of the voyage to Rodriguez Isle of the famed French astronomer, Alexandre Guy Pingre. Unfortunately for Lemonier and Pingre, the Owl is no longer recognized as an official constellation; its dim retinue of stars now belong to Virgo and Libra.
This is sadly ironic in a way, since we already pointed out that there are a variety of different birds that inhabit the nighttime sky. Yet the bird that is most associated with the night is not one of them!
Joe Rao is an esteemed astronomer who writes for Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and Natural History Magazine. Mr. Rao is a regular contributor to the Farmers' Almanac and serves as an associate lecturer for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.