That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices
Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.
We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed
Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.
But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,
No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,
Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.
My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.
Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.
Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.
I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.