Month: February 2016
There are definitely some strange occupations out there (I think of the show Discovery Channel used to run called “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe”)[i]. Maybe you’ve experienced a few instances where folks have given you a puzzled look after you’ve explained your profession. As an ornithologist (bird scientist), I can say that I’ve gotten my fair share of looks (and laughs) from people outside the ecology/wildlife management/natural resources sphere of influence.
This reaction is understandable. At first, it seems silly that one can earn a living watching birds. But, when you dig into the numbers, it is totally justifiable. According to a report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the year 2011, over 41 million American birders spent $41 billion, yes billion, on their birding equipment and expeditions, generating $107 billion in total industry output[ii]. And, that doesn’t include what the average American spends on bird seed, feeders, and such. A Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation presentation for the year of 2013 reported this figure to be around $4.5 billion[iii].
I think we’ve established that birding is a lucrative business we should all invest in, but that’s not why I believe we should all study birds. Personally, I think the biggest reason to study birds is this: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” – Matthew 6:26 (ESV)
This verse is taken from passage in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew. Today, we will only focus on verse 26, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire passage in Matthew 6:26-34. But, staying with verse 26, here we find a direct command to watch birds i.e. to be birders! Now, if you will indulge me, I will explain this a bit more by diving into the Greek language and exploring the word “look”.
In Greek, the word here is ἐμβλέψατε (em-bleps’-ate), the root word of which is ἐμβλέπω (em-blep’-o). Breaking down this root word further, we have ἐμ, which is a preposition meaning “into”, and βλέπω, which means “I see, I look”. Putting these together, ἐμβλέπω means “I look into, I consider deeply”.
Now, in this verse, the particular parsing of ἐμβλέπω to ἐμβλέψατε is the Aorist Active Imperative 2nd Person Plural. Whoooaaa, so what does that mean? The first part, Aorist Active Imperative, indicates that this is a strong command i.e. do this now. The second part, 2nd Person Plural, shows that this is a command given to everyone listening. In other words, it’s like speaking Southern and saying “y’all” or “you all”. So, piece it all together, and it is clear that Jesus is commanding “us all” to “consider deeply” the birds. But why?
We find the reason in the following half of the verse: “…they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Wow. Here, Jesus reminds us of the futility of our worry. If God cares for the birds, will He not care for us? And yet, we (I) still worry. I am always very humbled reading this passage. This is why birds are such wise teachers.
Now, of course, life has its ups and downs, and being under God’s care doesn’t mean we are wrapped in a safety cushion that protects us from life’s harm. Rather, I think it means that His plan is guiding our life. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 10:29 (ESV): “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” This verse confirms that yes, sparrows (and we) fall to the ground, but not without God’s knowing. In other words, if we believe that God is the good and gracious God He claims to be, than we can trust that all our fallings, even our last falling into the grave, are a part of His perfect will.
The old hymn “His Eye is On the Sparrow” captures this idea perfectly: “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” Birds are God’s reminder that we are always cared for, and that reminder flies by us every day. So why do I study birds? Because Jesus told me so.
[ii] USDI, FWS. “Birding in the United States: A demographic and economic analysis.” Addendum to the (2001): 2001-1.
[iii] Mazin, Lev. “USA and Canada Wild Bird Feeding Industry Benchmark Research 2013.” Presentation. Ask Your Target Market. 2013.
Middle school is an awkward time for some of us. I predominantly remember the smell of Axe body-spray filling the locker room as we teenage boys attempted to cover our 6th grade-armpit-stench with a more “pleasing” aroma. But, aside from inhaling noxious aerosol fumes every day, middle school was an overall positive experience for me. It was where I began to develop a unique passion that would change my life and the life of those around me: birds.
I was born and raised in the small town of Los Angeles, California[i]. We lived in a semi-rural community within the city limits called Shadow Hills. It may surprise you that such an environment is conducive to forming a person curious about the natural world, but be not quick to judge! Plenty of little critters find a home in my neck of the woods (cottontails, ‘possums, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and even a black bear[ii] have been seen by myself and/or neighbors). In fact, Los Angeles County is considered to be the “birdiest” county in the United States with over 500+ species reported living in or migrating through the area[iii]. Not bad for one county considering that the American Birding Association (ABA) checklist accepts close to 1,000 species across the entire North American continent[iv]. All this to say that the stage was set for a young boy to discover the world around him.
As a child, I always loved wildlife and the outdoors. My family traveled to national parks and monuments all over the country including the Everglades, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Alaska, and more[v]. Throughout these years, I remember flipping through my parents’ bird books and examining the all the different pictures and illustrations of birds, but it wasn’t until around the end of elementary school/beginning of middle school that my interest truly began to peak. I distinctly remember buying (with my dad’s money) my mom a birdbath for Mother’s Day. She loved it, but in the long run, I think it was really a gift to me. I would sit on my parents’ bed and peek through the blinds to watch all the birds gather and splash in the cool water. It attracted all sorts of birds: finches, sparrows, doves, jays, crows, woodpeckers, hawks, you name it. I bought various specialized bird feeders, and pretty soon, I had a little bird sanctuary going on in our front yard. Fast forward about ten years through bird courses in undergrad, various summer field jobs, and even a peer-reviewed research publication, and here I am studying woodpeckers at Utah State University.
Now, at 23 ½ years old[vi], I live in Logan, Utah with my sweetheart wife, Jess, and our adopted two-year-old, Bandit (he’s a cat). Currently, I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Ecology at the University while researching the nesting success/failure of the black-backed (Picoides arcticus) and white-headed woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus). My newest pursuit of birds is this blog.
I must give credit to two sources that inspired me to begin this project. First, a shout-out to master eBirder, fellow grad student, and neighbor Andrew Durso. Andrew is the academic every student aspires to be, and his blog “Life is Short, But Snakes are Long” is a fine piece of engaging, scientific writing for all audiences. His blog has been read by quite a few folks and published in some influential places. His success has inspired me to write about things that I believe in and want others to think about. To be honest, as long as one person reads this and ponders it for a while, that will be good enough for me.
Second, and more towards the purpose of this blog, I must acknowledge the ideas from the book The Birds, Our Teachers, written by fellow birder and theologian John Stott. This book has many invaluable lessons on how God can teach us through His birds. In my life, God comes first before anything else. As a Christian, my primary duty is to share the love and truth of God through Jesus Christ to the world and all its inhabitants. God has given me a passion to study birds, and hopefully, through this blog, I can use that passion to bring some praise to His name, spread the Good News of His perfect love, and to encourage the continual care of His creation.
The next few installments will concentrate on the four main reasons I love birds and how I believe God shines through them. I will focus on how God uses birds to teach us that 1) we are always cared for, 2) we are each uniquely created, 3) we are free in His grace, and 4) we all need friends. I have no idea how this little project will turn out, but hopefully God can use a middle-school boy’s dream to show others how faith and feather flock together.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – I Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
[i] At a teeny-tiny population of a little over 3.9 million, Los Angeles is only an infinitesimal 0.05% of the total estimated world population of 7.3 billion! Hey, isn’t everything relative?
[ii] Technically, I “saw” the black bear when the sound of news helicopters woke me up at 7 a.m. and we turned on the TV to see a black bear running around our neighborhood.
[v] I can proudly say that I am a Junior Ranger at over 40 National Parks, Monuments, Historical Sites, and Recreational Areas. My latest enrollment was at Saguaro National Park in Arizona last summer with my dad.
[vi] Half-birthdays are a big deal in my family. We usually celebrate with half a cake and a white elephant-esque gift.