Albert’s Afterlife

One of the last birds to migrate is the kinglet. Their appearance signals that fall is drawing to a close and the chill of winter is traveling close behind them. These minute birds, weighing in at less than a quarter of an ounce, spend their summers in the northern woods and boreal forests. In the autumn they work their way south, busily searching for small insects as they go. They seem fearless and will often come within a few feet of humans. With their large eyes and tiny puff of a body, they look like a cartoon of a bird that a child would draw.

Sometime early on October 12th a Golden-crowned Kinglet mistook the reflection in a window for a shrub and hit it head on. Passing by latter on a quick errand I found its small body laying on the sidewalk with some trash. That seemed an undignified end, so I picked it up. It was so light I could barely feel it in my hand aside from the tickle of its feathers. Back in the car I told my girls, ages 4 and 5, “I have something to show you.”

Being able to hold and stroke the bird fascinated them. They began an immediate argument as to who had gotten to hold it the longest, while passing it back and forth. They wanted to know why and how it had died. I explained it had hit a window because the glass had mirrored the safety of a hedge.

The 5 going on 60 year-old asked, “Can we name him?” which surprised me as stuffed animals in our house generally go by “kitty” and “brown puppy.” She said, “I want to call him Albert.” She asked if we could keep him, adding him to the trove of horseshoe crab molts, crab claws, ex-praying mantis, and cicada casings. I explained that Albert was different, that his body would begin to break down and decompose, a nice word for rot, and it would smell. “When something dies there are insects and bacteria, little, little things that live in the soil and a lot of other places too, that eat the body and break it down. It becomes part of the earth. But when this happens, it doesn’t smell so good, like stuff we leave in the fridge for too long, until it turns green.” The wise one, who has spent hours starring at the displays in a local natural history museum, said “And then what’s left is the skeleton.”

“Right, and then when the flesh is part of the earth it can help feed the plants, and a plant might grow up and make seeds that are eaten by another bird.” The Lion King aficionado made the connection, “That’s like the Circle of Life, right?”

Once we arrived at their play date, Albert became show and tell and was passed from hand to hand again, stroked, and poked. Death was explored without fear. A funeral was decided on, a box found and suitably decorated, and Albert was consigned to the earth to grow again.

I realized why the name, Albert, had seemed instantly correct. The famous Albert, Professor E, had said, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.”