There’s a lot to see in the natural world, and though I’ve never become any kind of expert, I do enjoy the opportunity to pause and look closely at the small wonders around us. This means I can be a little tedious to take a brisk walk with, since I’m endlessly stopping to gawk at the moss on the trees or the shape of a pebble that’s been tumbled smooth in the surf. On the other hand, I’m a cheap date and will probably be easily entertained when I’m old and feeble.
I grew up in a family that valued nature in an academic, objective, post-Darwinian way. We were forever visiting natural history museums, marveling over the moth-eaten creatures on display and the odd dioramas behind them. The Harvard Museum of Natural History was, and remains, a special favorite, offering up room after room of not only zoological specimens but also a spectacular collection of minerals and gems, as well as the famous and fabulous glass flowers.
In case you don’t know, the glass flowers are a huge display of hand-crafted, anatomically detailed glass plant specimens, and some insects as well, created in Germany at the turn of the last century to give Harvard students lessons in botany. The glass flowers were recently provided a thorough cleaning and restoration and set up in a stunning new display. If you haven’t been there recently, or ever, now’s the time to plan a trip.
My mother’s mother — for reasons lost to time, we called her ‘Lambie’ — was a great fancier of song birds. She spent happy hours on the sunporch at the family cottage in New Hampshire with her field glasses in her hand and her Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of Eastern America at the ready. For days when the local birds proved elusive, she maintained a large collection of hand-carved wooden specimens, which she never tired of sharing with her shy little granddaughter.
“This is a pine siskin,” she would say, gently handing me a small, dun-colored bird, precisely carved and painted. “He can hang upside down from the tiniest branch to eat his breakfast.” Or, “Here is a rose-breasted grosbeak. My, isn’t he beautiful?”
Lambie died many years ago, and though I’m not one for bric-a-brac, I am grateful to have a few of her carved birds on my kitchen windowsill.
But there is no bird like a real bird to capture my attention. A couple of days ago, on my way to the clothesline, I spied a tiny bird, motionless in the grass beside the house. It must have flown into the glass of the downstairs bathroom window.
It seemed intact, and at first glance I hoped it was merely stunned and would recover. But no, it was dead. I cupped it carefully in my hand and brought it inside. It was a mousey olive-grey with some pale yellow highlights on its wings and tail. In the center of its head was a small patch of bright yellow feathers; when I blew on it gently, it opened to reveal a larger patch of neon orange.
Consulting my own Peterson’s, I decided this little creature was either a golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) or a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). Both are found in Maine, but only the golden-crowned kinglet lives here year-round. The color of the crown patch should be the key, but I’m still not certain. Perhaps a reader will set me straight?
What I do know is that it is a marvelous world in which two distinct species, so much alike, evolve as separate, specialized organisms, equally important, somehow, in the scheme of things. Millions of years went into that specialization, into all the wondrous diversity of the living planet around us. All we have to do is open our eyes and our hearts to feel the power and splendor of it all.
I’m sorry this little creature lost his life by smacking into my bathroom window. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to hold his beauty in my hand and admire it up close, and to learn a tiny bit more about the world we share.