A few days ago, a little pine siskin flew into the windows that front the entrance to my apartment building and fell to the concrete stoop. When I saw it, it was relatively recent, and I gave it a good hard look. Sometimes these songbirds will fly into a window and stun themselves quite badly. I’ve seen them, sitting on the cement and panting, recovering, trying to get their bearings; their tiny beaks open wide and their sides heaving, wings spread just slightly, tail resting on the ground. It’s quite an unnatural position for a passerine, very upright, and very recognizable.
This little bird, a female, was spread on her back, eyes open and unblinking, and utterly still. I peered at her; I wanted to make as sure as I could that she was beyond intervention. Nothing.
I left her, figuring that if she were simply stunned, she would right herself in time, pant, and fly away. I reckoned that if she were dead, a raccoon or one of our many stray neighborhood cats would carry her off in the night for a just slightly aged dinner.
I was wrong. The next afternoon, she was still lying there, wings closed in rigor, flies creeping all over her tiny form. When I saw one of their feet press on the now tacky surface of her wide-open eye, all black and staring, it confirmed what I already knew. Nary a flutter nor a twitch to greet such an intrusion.
The next day, she was so bloated that she was as wide as she is long. Her skin softened by enzymatic and microbial activity stretches to accommodate the gaseous products of decay; her tiny legs were splayed and her sharp little wings spread and tense, lifted from the surface of the slab. Her dun-tipped feathers stood out from her swollen breast, showing their yellow stems.
After a while, she simply deflated. Then her breasts slid each to their side and a tiny tear opened up in between them. I saw a black worm writhing on her wing. A dog ran up on to the stoop and sniffed her, his warm breath ruffling the coverts on her belly. He let me pet his ribby back, covered with short, dense fur. Her head was now unrecognizable, a mass of dark and matted feathers.
Today, something… perhaps a crow… pulled her belly out. I found the shriveled scrap of skin with its attached downy feathers a few feet away. Her wings were the only recognizable part of her now, with their long, straight primaries and secondaries. They remain pulled back, as if frozen in flight at the top of their stroke. Her body now empty, collapsed on itself, lies twisted so that one leg appears to spring from her back and one from her front, the tiny feet sculpted into scythe-like curves. The brown stain on the concrete where she had lain before the scavenger disturbed her still had a few feathers stuck to it. Soon, as the skin dries more and more in the sun and the breeze, the feathers would loosen of their own accord and be blown from the stoop. Then the tatters that remain of her skin, and all that will remain, if anything, are some pieces of stained bone. These will dry, become brittle, and break up into dust and join the soil.
It is astonishing to me and I like to think to most of human kind to see this tiny body invaded by hundreds of other living things; what had kept them at bay previously was so very fragile. The guardian walls tumbled by a knock to the head. I had never noticed a strong smell from her. I doubt she held enough gas to be perceptible to my nose even after she burst. I thought I smelled a slight hint of sulfur and perhaps a faint and distasteful sweetness, but it could’ve been my imagination. She certainly never smelled as strongly as the carcass of a dead coyote I had seen along a stretch of highway north of town some weeks before, his hair already falling away and his skin beneath taut and shiny.
Tiny bodies vanish so quickly.