Conservation Status: Least Concern
Length: 5.9–7.1 in (15–18 cm)
Weight: 0.6–1 oz (16–28 g)
Range: Central and North America
“Let me look at my demon objectively,” Nabokov writes, and then he describes, as though it were the treatment he intended, a summer afternoon in 1911 during which his French governess, a woman of some bulk, accidentally crushed a cabinet tray containing a series of the Large White (Pieris brassicae, a kind of butterfly) that Nabokov had left on an armchair. He laments in particular the loss of “a precious gynandromorph, left side male, right side female, whose abdomen could not be traced and whose wings had come off.” Even if he could have reattached the wings, he writes, there would have been no way to prove they belonged to the same creature.
To look at his demon objectively, free from his “howl of anguish,” may also be to treat it grammatically, much as a direct object absorbs action rather than initiates it. The difference between an enthusiast and everyone else, in other words, may be that the objects of a lepidopterist’s attention, like a birder’s, switch cases. They become subjects. And as they acquire agency, they acquire specificity as well, or vice versa, as though stepping into the foreground meant coming into focus.
A species is a study in theme and variation, however, and a good naturalist understands it is as much a range of characteristics as an evolving set of them. But while each individual combines set and range in a novel way, sometimes these novelties become striking for their incongruence, their dysfunction, their aberration. A gynandromorph openly displays its rarity, which perhaps comes to constitute, as with many rare things, its value. But what effect, for the enthusiast, does anomaly have? As specificity reaches the end of its established continuum, does subject become object once more? Or did it ever really have agency to begin with?
With its chestnut feathers lining one side, yellow feathers lining the other, the gynandromorph instructs us to wonder. It only barely holds up as proof, as Nabokov knew, since what it proves doesn’t comport with common truths, or rather with incompatible, or mutually exclusive, truths. That male and female should find equal expression in the same body may defy conventional wisdom about gender, but then that’s the point the bird embodies: the conventions are false, at least from time to time. I, too, am possible, the gynandromorph says. I’m proof.
from The Hater’s Guide to Birds, with illustrations by Annie Hagar.