The bird the zoo bought was neither pelican nor stork. It was gray, and almost four feet tall. Its tail contained large feathers, longer than American rulers but about the same width. Every day he alternated standing on one foot at the city zoo and earned praise for his feathers while children slobbered on the heavy glass and infants shrieked when he clacked his big crusty beak on the window.
Many zoos named their animals, but not this one. And so, because of that, this strange bird was known by the number “0987” that was marked on his green plastic bracelet tied around his twiggy ankle. He was a rare breed, and though there had been talk of finding him a mate, they seemed to have forgotten about it. He could have been the last of his kind, for all he knew, and they were just keeping him in a tiny enclave of imported marsh vegetation until he was no more.
Most zoo patrons talked about how ugly and impressive he was, and all the while the scientists kept taking notes about how many times a day he did normal things like peck around the fake pond for fish or make loud calls into the air with his neck arched and throat curved. They also took notes on presumably trivial things like whether or not he tapped his beak on the glass on certain days and how often he blinked. One graduate student who was interning at the zoo objected to recording this observation, not because it was inconsequential but because it was inaccurate. The bird, he said, was not simply blinking. He was rolling his eyes. At first the others balked at the differentiation, but the more the researchers spent time with the bird, the more they found the young man to have offered an astute contribution to expanding the animal’s growing taxonomic file.
Proud of housing the zoo’s first major spectacle since the birth of twin albino pandas 30 years ago, the chairman of the board contacted his half-brother who ran the local newspaper to see if he might interest him in the biological mystery that was nesting at his zoo. As a managing editor, his half-brother was every bit of a businessman now as he was a journalist at the beginning of his career, so they struck a deal: for every story the paper ran about the bird or other zoo whereabouts, the chairman would buy a half-page full-color advertisement on the back of Section B. If the Ford auto dealer stole the spot with a full-page, the chairman would put the money toward the paper’s annual summer sidewalk chalk festival fundraiser. The first article ran mid-week on the front page as the centerpiece about the mystery bird and attracted 50 percent more business the Saturday following the feature.