This flighty and ultimately doomed constellation was introduced in 1776 by the French astronomer Pierre-Charles Le Monnier (1715–1799) in a paper titled ‘Constellation du Solitaire’ in the Mémoires of the French Royal Academy of Sciences. He listed 22 constituent stars and described it as a ‘bird of the Indies and the Philippines’. It was perched on the end of the tail of Hydra, the water snake, with its head awkwardly overlapping the southern pan of Libra, the scales.
The bird shown on Le Monnier’s diagram of the constellation resembles a female blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius, family Turdidae). Le Monnier said he introduced the constellation in memory of the voyage to the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean by another Frenchman, Alexandre-Guy Pingré, who observed the transit of Venus from there in 1761. Quite why this particular bird was chosen remains unexplained, though, as does its placing in an area where there was scarcely room for a new constellation.
The historian R. H. Allen said in his book Star Names that the constellation represented the Rodrigues Solitaire, an extinct flightless bird similar to the Dodo, but this seems to be a misunderstanding of what Le Monnier wrote. Johann Bode changed its name to Turdus Solitarius in his Uranographia atlas of 1801 (below).
Two other identifications
The British scientist Thomas Young renamed the constellation the Mockingbird on a star chart published in 1807 in A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (illustration below), while the English amateur astronomer Alexander Jamieson transformed it into Noctua, the owl, on his Celestial Atlas of 1822, turning it so it faced the opposite way from Le Monnier’s creation (bottom illustration). Jamieson said he thought it was strange that no such bird had previously been placed among the constellations ‘considering the frequency it is met with on all Egyptian monuments’. The bird he depicted has ear tufts and is presumably intended to be an Egyptian owl such as the pharaoh eagle-owl, posed side-on but with its head facing the onlooker as though in a hieroglyph.
Above: The Solitaire was renamed the Mockingbird on the southern hemisphere planisphere published in Thomas Young’s A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (1807).
Above: Noctua on the Celestial Atlas of Alexander Jamieson (1822). By turning the bird so that its head is to the right, Jamieson has made it fit more naturally next to Libra. On this representation, the bird’s head extends into southern Virgo. (Image © Ian Ridpath.)
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