There's a song from the musical ''Cinderella'' that asks quite a profound question: ''Do I love you because you're beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?''
The issue of beauty vs. ugliness, the question of judgment by appearances, must be a source of great anguish to those who face the present sad phenomenon that money and manpower are much more available for the care or preservation of cute and showy animals than for the (to us) colorless, unsavory, homely, or tiny species.
I can't deny the thrill I feel when a ''special'' bird lands in our yard, when through my binoculars I can see the brilliant cadmium-yellow markings identifying a myrtle warbler, the exotic patterns and colors of a flicker, or the scarlet of a tanager. But nowadays I try to control myself a bit. I'm far too aware that the thrill is a reaction to the new and flashy; that, however the bird may appear on the outside, or however great its numbers, individual birds of all species are of equal value. I had been reasonably aware of this, both intellectually and in my heart, for some time; but until Iceball came to visit I had never had direct contact with the practical challenges inherent in humane labors.
It happened during the period of bitter cold in the Midwestern United States last winter. One day when it was 25 below zero, I glanced out at the backyard and saw a wet starling frozen to a stretch of aluminum fencing, struggling frantically to release himself. After I carried this ball of ice into the house and settled him on a cushion in a warm spot to defrost, I called my husband so that we could discuss the next practical steps to take. He called a prestigious zoo in our area for suggestions.
''I'm sorry to have to tell you this,'' the zoo keeper said, ''but starlings are considered junk birds. There are so many of them, and they aren't especially beautiful. Now if it was a cardinal, or something like that, you might be able to place him with a nature center for care. I'm afraid you'll have to care for him yourselves. You can feed him milk-soaked bread, apples, cracked corn. Put him out of drafts and keep him for a month until his feathers grow back. Starlings readjust well. He should be fine.''
Well, he was fine. We bought Iceball a big cage and filled it with familiar natural objects and branches. We fed him as directed, and he ate like a horse.
But more important than this, we got to know him as an individual. We came to love him. The point is, I had never found starlings particularly beautiful. There were a lot of them, and they seemed rather drab - like some people, until you single them out and get to know them.
Frankly, I think that loving Iceball and realizing his genuine beauty arrived simultaneously. Up close, his color and winter patterning were breathtaking: white speckles on black, green and purple iridescence, pheasantlike weavings of black, brown, and beige, a brilliant luster to the feathers.
I tried not to disturb him too often, but each time I entered his small room, his close-together beady black eyes stared long and intently at me down a long, thin beak. Each time we looked at each other, it was as though sky and earth were sharing a small patch of common ground.
Iceball was also remarkably intelligent. Within a few days he learned to open the cage door, and we had to tie everything closed that opened out or slid up. He was our guest for a full month, and while we loved him dearly, it was a joy to watch him fly from confinement back to boundless skies.
There was a lot to think about after Iceball's departure. At first I had trouble resolving my feelings about the zoo keeper's attitude. But then I realized that she herself was only attempting to deal realistically with the prevalent attitudes held by others.
Surely, I mused, we have to applaud any positive step. It is better to save what one can than nothing at all - better to save a purebred stray, a showy bird , than no stray, no bird. I admire people who can work so hard for transitional victories, who will dedicate their lives to causes like the preservation of endangered species or the placing of abandoned animals. To try to accomplish everything at once seems to lead only to violent resistance and reaction.
But still I hope someday we will all fall in love with creation. Then, as in ''Beauty and the Beast,'' the miracle will not be that even ugly things can seem beautiful but that all things are revealed through our love to be beautiful.