On a sun-splendored day in early September the young boy went outside to play in the yard of his parents' Maryland farm. But something he saw held his attention captive almost as soon as he ran out the door of the old clapboard house. Just to the right of where the dirt and grass driveway entered the yard was a tall thistle with full purple blossoms. On one of them was a brilliant, small bird, bright yellow with black wings. It was the most beautiful, perfect creature he had ever seen. His mother told him it was a goldfinch.

He decided to see what other birds he could find. The second one was a mockingbird, not nearly as attractive, yet it had big, showy white patches on its wings, a long tail that it swished around, and sometimes it would walk on the ground slowly spreading its wings as if trying to demonstrate something. And its song was loud and complex and never-ending. This was in 1949; and the boy today is still captivated by goldfinches and other birds.

Jump to August 9, 1996. At the small public library where the boy – now a grown man – worked, a man in his 60s asked for help. His clothes were dirty, his features coarse, as if he had just gotten off work from his shift at a factory where conditions were unsanitary, perhaps even dangerous. His unwashed hands, full of creases and cracks, did nothing to dispel this impression.

But he had just seen a small bird and wanted to know what it was. He said it was bright yellow with black wings and he had seen it feeding on top of a thistle plant on a purple blossom. Nothing the man said made the librarian believe he had paid attention to a bird or anything else in nature before or had ever sought out a public library to satisfy his need for information. On this day and at this place he had asked the right person.

A few years later another man came to the library, a worker for the state parks department. He described exactly the same situation, had no idea what he had seen. One could be forgiven at this point for thinking there is really something special about goldfinches. There is.