A few days before the New Year, I watched a warbler pecking up insects; he was busy and bright, finding insects on the little weeds that grow between the bricks and bluestone of my patio. He is familiar, but I am not certain of his species.When you look upon a bird and see some colors or interesting markings, it is easy to think you’ll have no trouble verifying its identity with the guidebook. In birds, as in everything, there are hues and variations of which you had no prior knowledge, and as the novice turns the pages of suggestion, certainty fades. To cull this proclivity, I take the guidebook’s advice and try to note key features: wing bars, eye ring, tail coverts, belly, breast, supercilium. There are also practical things you must take into account, like range and habits and plausibility.
There is nothing arctic in a warbler, and so when the first severe drop set in, the bird froze to death. I found his body on the snow at the foot of the bamboo hedge. Now I could examine its gentle colors by sliding a fingertip along its crown. It’s probably wrong to manipulate the dead, but I coax open its wing, feel its weightless body and marvel at its worth. I noted, now, that when I had first watched the bird, I had trepidation mixed with enjoyment as he hopped successfully about. I wondered if he was moving south and suspected not.
After examining the palm warbler for a while, I decide to put him back where I found him, only I buried him under leaf litter and snow, so I can more quickly forget the sadness caused by this event.
Things were entirely different for the wild goose that a hunter brought me. Here, the bird is heavy with meat, and at least for us their numbers are plentiful. However, dine on his fate as I may, it does not mean I don’t hesitate to examine and be awestruck by the great bird’s symmetry. I pull a fist full of feathers from its breast—so many oily feathers. When I let loose, the handful of down rolls like a small cloud across the yard, and yet there is no evident void where I pulled it from.
When I am done plucking, the feathers will end up in the window well and snared in tall grass around my house. All winter long, they’ll persist and bring with them some memory of the New Year’s meal. Then the grass will grow, and sparrows will cart the feathers off to build nests, and it will have all started over again.