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Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Eye of the Beholder

Imagine that you are in a foreign country, perhaps one on the other side of the world.  You decide to spend a day at the zoo; the first exhibit you enter is the bird house.  You walk up to the first habitat and peer inside.

There are four birds in the enclosure, a male and a female each of two species.  You look at the larger birds first.  Not terribly big birds, but they make something of an impression.  Both are a pale blue, the color of a frozen lake, and banded with fine black markings, including a thin collar around the neck, while the belly is the purest white.  The tips of the wings and the tail are scaled like those of a butterfly.  The head of each is caped with a peaked crest.

The other pair is smaller, and the female isn't much to look at.  The male, on the other hand... it's as if someone dipped him in crimson paint - from the tip of his tail to his crested head, he is as bright red as a maraschino cherry.  The only break in the coloration comes at his face, which is rimmed in black.

Painted like this, these two birds compare favorably to the most exotic birds that I've seen in zoos around the country.  You'd think people would queue up to see them.  Instead, we ignore them as they flit around our fit as we walk from exhibit to exhibit.  They are the blue jay and the northern cardinal.

On a few occasions when I've visited other countries, I've been fascinated by seeing animals that to me are "zoo" animals - exotic, visually striking, unexpected - wandering about, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.  When walking down the streets of the Tanzanian city of Arusha, I glanced up once in response to some chattering in the trees overhead, only to find myself staring up into the eyes of a squabbling batch of fruit bats.  Later, as I sat on a park bench, I watched a trumpeter hornbill fly by.  Crossing the street later that day, I almost stepped in the road-killed mess that used to be a hedgehog.  Years later, when entertaining some naturalist friends from South America at my home in the US, I watched dumbfounded as they spent fifteen enchanted minutes watching gray squirrels outside my window.

Wildlife, no matter the time or place or the form, has its own spectacular beauty.  And beauty, as we are told, is solely in the eye of the beholder.

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