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Watch This Birdie But Also…. Watch Out!

Many bird constellations are winging their way on the celestial stage we call our night sky. One of the over sixty constellations we can see in the night sky is Aquila the Eagle. According to Greek mythology, Aquila was the favorite pet of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Like most of the members in the hierarchy of Greek gods, let's say he wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy with his supreme power. You wouldn't see him kiss babies at a political rally, and they're certainly wouldn't be any fireside chats.

Before I continue with Zeus's ruthless legacy, let me tell you how to find the constellation. Right now, in the early evening, around 8 pm, Aquila is soaring in the southern sky, about halfway from the horizon to the overhead zenith right in the Milky Way Band, the thickest part of our home galaxy. The main part of Aquila resembles a sideways diamond that outlines the wingspan of the eagle. Unfortunately, there aren't any real stars that make up the eagle's head. You need to use your entire imagination to see that. On the lower right side of the diamond is a faint crooked line of stars that allegedly outlines up the tail of the attacking eagle.

Just off to the lower right of the tail in a very faint and nondescript constellation Scutum the Shield is a cute little open star cluster of young stars. It's formally known as Messier Object 11 or M11 but its nickname is the "The Wild Duck Cluster" You should be easily able to see it with a small to moderate or even a good pair of binoculars, and some claim it resembles a duck landing on a lake. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them, though. I've tried to see the ducky in that cluster, but I'm afraid it's lost to me. Astronomically it's a young cluster of about 500 stars only about 220 million old, which, believe it or not, makes them toddler stars. The Wild duck lies a little over 6000 light-years, with just one year equaling nearly six trillion miles.

The brightest star of Aquila is Altair, marking Aquila's heart. Altair is easy to find because it is one of three bright "Summer Triangle" stars which, even though we're just about at mid-autumn, presently hanging nearly overhead in the high southern sky. The Summer Triangle isn't an official constellation, but its stars; Altair, Vega, and Deneb, are the brightest in that part of the sky, and each one of them is the brightest star in its constellation. Altair is the moderately bright star on the lower right corner of the triangle.

Getting back to Aquila's story, although I should warn you that eating your breakfast may not go well with reading this story. Better finish it up first… Before he became Zeus's favorite pet, the king of the gods commissioned Aquila the Eagle to seek out a servant boy for the gods of Mount Olympus, someone who would tidy up the place, change their sheets, and be a highly-skilled bartender to the gods. So one day, Aquila was swooping and came upon a shepherd named Ganymede, who was tending his sheep. Aquila studied how hard and dedicated the young shepherd was and promptly plucked him away from the sheep and flew him up to Mount Olympus. At first, Ganymede missed his family and his sheep, but the job grew on him in time. He became buddies with many of the gods and, being a growing boy; he sure didn't mind being around all the beautiful goddesses!

Zeus couldn't be more grateful to Aquila, and soon the king of the gods adopted the faithful eagle as a pet. After training, he trusted Aquila with noble duties, such as occasionally delivering Zeus's thunderbolts to Earth. After a few short years Aquila became Zeus's personal messenger and Zeus's diabolical "hit bird." Anytime Zeus felt it necessary to enforce or punish, he called on Aquila with his razor-sharp beak to carve the violator up. The evil eagle would punish mortals and gods alike with great dispatch and no mercy.

There's one story about how Zeus wanted to punish Prometheus, one of the old gods of the Titan family because he gave humans the gift of fire. Zeus thought this was too great of a gift to bestow on mere mortals. Zeus was so enraged he had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar, and every single day from dawn to dusk, Aquila tore through his flesh and chewed up his liver. Since Prometheus was a god and immortal, his liver healed up every night, only to be pecked and chewed by the razor beak of Aquila the very next day. This went on day after day until the great Greek hero Hercules finally shot the evil eagle in the heart.

Zeus memorialized his faithful hit bird by placing his body among the stars, soaring in the heavens, and reminding all not to mess with the king of the gods!!!

Diagram of THE CONSTELLATION AQUILA...Click here