Rarely Beautiful

Blue-winged Teal male

Blue-winged Teals are one of Washington’s oh-wow birds – a duck that, when sighted, causes the jaw to drop, the eyes to fill with wonder, and the mouth to say, “Oh wow.”

I’m not exactly sure why this is. Yes, the male teals have dramatic plumage: a gun-metal, bluish-gray head marked with snow-white crescents in front of the eyes; a chest covered  with cute little black spots on a beige background; and powder-blue wing patches that rival the sky in their blueness. But other ducks are far more colorful, including the Blue-wingeds’ close cousin, the Northern Shoveler, a duck with iridescent green head, bright mahogany body, white chest, and carrot-orange legs.

And maybe that’s the key. Blue-winged Teals are uncommon at the Fill. They come in April and May, stay for a few days, and then disappear to better breeding grounds in undisturbed fields and potholes around the state. I don’t see them every year, and even when I do, I know they are not going to hang around for long. They’re a confection. Mallards, Northern Shovelers, the ubiquitous Gadwalls are residents, more like everyday meat-and-potatoes . We’d miss them if they were gone, but we take them for granted as long as they’re here.

Not every creature on Earth is like this. You’d never catch a cow walking half a mile for one bite of borage. No, cows prefer abundance. A gull with one herring is not nearly as happy as a gull surrounded by a school of herring. Most animals shun rarity. They distrust the unusual. “Antiques Roadshow” would never make their A list.

We, on the other hand, value the rare. We’re crazy about the Mona Lisa because there’s only one. If every household had a Mona Lisa hanging in the kitchen window, its value would plummet to the level of a bullfighter on black velvet.

Maybe we should think about that. After all, clean air is common. So are parks, loved ones, the dawn chorus of robins, smiles. They deserve an “oh wow” even if they are everyday. Because they are every day.

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