Is this the most exotic bird in the world? It took command of the highest point in a bare tree 15 feet from the ground, where it was skewered by a beam of sunlight. It looked as if it was striking a pose in a spotlight.
It was a bright shining purple spangled with dancing gold, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The bird was in motion all the time, looking this way and that, and with each movement the purple shifted to a shimmering green and then back again, strobing from colour to colour in a dance of living light.
It was a starling, of course, not a bird famous for the luxuriance of its plumage. In most lights they are pretty dull, a freckled black, and besides, they are still common enough to be taken for granted — much as lapwings used to be.
Most of the colour in most birds comes not from pigment but from light, refracted through the feathers, just as adding a drop of oil to a dirty city puddle transforms it into a world of rainbows. This explains why an apparently gaudy bird can vanish before your eyes, as if snuffed out like a candle. In some lights and from angles a kingfisher can look black: I’m convinced that many people who long to see a kingfisher have already seen one without knowing it.
But here was a bird doing the exact opposite: a humdrum bird putting on a coat of many colours and letting the sunlight do the work for him. There’s a line in the psalms praising God “who coverest thyself with light as with a garment”.
The 17th century mystic Thomas Traherne (subject of a song by the Incredible String Band) wrote: “You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.”
But here, without mysticism or poetry or religion, was a bird who really was clothed in light. As if it was the most natural thing in the world.