This flighty and ultimately doomed constellation was introduced in 1776 by the French astronomer Pierre-Charles Le Monnier 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”.
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.
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. Bode changed its name to Turdus Solitarius in his Uranographia atlas of 1801 (see the first illustration below).
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, while the English amateur astronomer Alexander Jamieson transformed it into Noctua, the owl, on his Celestial Atlas of 1822. 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”. Before it flew from the sky, the constellation occupied an area at the tip of the Hydra’s tail next to Libra.
Below: Turdus Solitarius shown on the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801).
Below: 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).
Below: 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. (Image © Ian Ridpath.)
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