A strange thing happened Saturday afternoon. I had been cutting up some boards on the outside deck, when I noticed, lying on the saber saw, the body of a male towhee. I’d only turned away from the sawhorses for a minute or two and had heard no sound, and yet there it was, draped carefully over the metal casing of the saw, lying on its side, as if deliberately and carefully placed there by a cat, or a child - except there was no cat or child.
I picked it up, and was struck again at the apparent weightlessness of birds. The towhee appeared to be dead. The dark red eyes were shut, tightly closed. There was no sign of breathing, no movement from the little gray tongue. But there was also no visible sign of injury, not so much as a ruffled feather. It was as if the bird, in its healthy prime, had had a heart attack or a stroke, dropping directly from one of the overhanging pines. It had simply fallen, like the proverbial sparrow. I had chores to finish, so I laid it on the far end of the railing in the shade to observe later. I forgot about it for the next three days.
Then, yesterday afternoon, I found the towhee where I had left it, undisturbed, and with no sign of decay. It was a dry light package of feathers, whose colors, unlike those of fish, had not faded in death. Why do birds seem like this, uncorrupted and insubstantial in death – as if all birds were saints?
Why are our human ideas of beauty locked so deeply into the plumage of songbirds? The male towhee seems particularly lovely, with its striking, jet black head and bib, all black, with only the dark red coal of an eye in the living bird. The beak, the color of a gun barrel, is thick and sharply pointed, like that of its cousin, the cardinal. The black plumage continues down the back to the tail feathers, which have striking white tips at the corners. Beneath the tail is one of the loveliest and softest patches of plumage in the world: a flame-shaped, incredibly soft rounded wedge the color of blond fire – an almost hidden extravagance.
The breast, which seems so pure and creamy-white, is actually double-hued. The bottom half of each breast feather is a charcoal gray, which seems to intensify the white of the overlapping upper feathers. The wings have a wonderful, fanlike, diaphanous quality, silvery-gray and translucent, with the leading edge of each feather growing thinner and thinner towards the primaries. The rufous-colored side feathers are, like those of the breast, underlain with a lower half of dark charcoal, giving it a remarkable depth of texture.
.And finally, there are those thin, armored, ratcheted claws, so unlike the soft fluid grace of the rest of the bird. Ancient and twig-like, they remind us of the dead bird’s dinosaurian past.
But it’s impossible to convey in words the stunning, multilayered, artful design of this one small bird. For whose eyes were these subtle and complex flourishes fashioned? Is it all for the sake of the female towhee’s pleasure? The problem of beauty in the world is as troublesome for skeptics and atheists as the problem of evil is for believers and would-be believers. But beauty knows nothing of doubt or belief, or goodness and evil. It simply presents itself in unexpected places – a dead towhee on a deck railing - and confounds our attempts to explain it.