A male cardinal came to the yard yesterday, and I gasped. That plumage! That crest! That bossy look! Yet I didn’t always find cardinals gasp-worthy. At our feeder in Maryland, as many as a dozen would show up together. Here in Vermont, aside from the occasional bluebird, our birds excel more by their song than by their plumage. Thrushes and warblers dress in drab brown and beige, so as not to distract from their music.
But now that our winters are warmer, a cardinal will sometimes decide to stick around, and the locals take photos of the flatlander bird, and post them on Facebook. If things keep going as they are, we’ll soon wake up in the mornings to the cacophony of visiting macaws. And no doubt, the first glimpse of that outrageous blue-and-gold, or red-blue-and-yellow plumage will stop us in our tracks, and cause us to reach frantically for our phones. But if the macaws choose to stay, soon their level on the exoticism scale will plunge to that of the blue jay (which you must admit is a pretty sensational-looking bird, when you see it for the first time).
I was squirrel-deprived as a child, and couldn’t get over, when I first met a gray squirrel, its twitching treble-clef tail, the bold look in its eyes, and the almost human way it used its hands. Now of course I hardly give squirrels a glance–unless there is a black one, in which case my sense of wonder returns unabated.
But back to birds. Woodpeckers—downy, hairy, and red-bellied—love my feeders, but other than buying them suet cakes by the case, I barely notice them. Yet despite my tendency to wilt in the heat, I would trudge through the wilds of Arkansas if I had a real hope of seeing that holy grail of birders, the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Instead, why can’t I marvel each morning when the downies and the hairies and especially the red-bellieds (whose belly is barely pink, but whose head is a spectacular orangey-red) come to demolish the suet, flinging off bits of it that adhere greasily to my window? Why can’t I rejoice in their dailiness, their reliability, their familiarity? Like the rest of my species I harbor an unfortunate prejudice in favor of the rare and extraordinary—the black swan, the white stag, and Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes.
This preference for the exceptional is so ingrained in us that it must have survival value. The sight of a ruby-red strawberry in a field of boring green, and the subsequent burst of sweetness in the mouth of some Australopithecus grandmother must have cemented in her this taste for the unusual, which she then passed on to her descendants.
So maybe there is survival value in preferring what is rare—physical survival at least. But what about the survival of sanity? We have evolved to be like magpies, disdaining the pebble in favor of the diamond. We have lost the ability to honor the everyday, and require ever sharper stimuli in order to attend—more color, more sound, more apps. Wouldn’t we be more at peace if, in this season of enforced seclusion, we put aside our binoculars and collector’s nets, and learned to truly see the acorn, the sparrow, and the moth?