If you’ve ever been around someone who is really into birds, you might sometimes think that they pull bird names out of their butt. Does a Black-throated Green Warbler really exist? Or a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl? If you’re a birder on the other side of that equation, you may have your friends jokingly tease you by making up ridiculous bird names. “Hey look, Sammy, I see an Orange-crowned Warbling Hawk-finch!” My personal favorite is the Whale Song-singing Double-breasted Angle Hooper, a made up bird from the cartoon show, Phineas and Ferb (one of the greatest cartoons of all time, in my opinion). All joking aside, there is a lot we can learn through bird names, be it personally, relationally, and even theologically.
For the most part, bird names try to be straight-forward. Usually, they describe an obvious physical characteristic of the bird, its preferred habitat, or the person that first discovered it. For example, what color is a Blue Jay? It’s blue (however that blue is not produced by pigments, but by light refraction). The Red-tailed Hawk has a rusty-red tail. Where do you think Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows live? In swampy marshes. Alexander Wilson, often known as the father American ornithology, has five species named after him in North America: Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe (yes snipes exist), and the Wilson’s Warbler.
Knowing the name of a bird can let you know a lot about it. The Bahama Oriole is from the Bahamas. Even if you know nothing about birds, you can probably guess as to what kind of world the Bahama Oriole lives in just by knowing its name. Similarly, with people, someone’s name can convey a fair amount of information about who they are and where they are from. Maria Gonzalez is more likely to be a female from Latin America than a male from the shores of West Africa. This is turn, may provide you a very basic idea of what they may have experienced and who they are. Of course, this is not a license to generalize and stereotype people, but names do convey some basic information. More importantly, they form a basis for our own understanding of ourselves and our relationships.
A name provides distinction from other things, and thus helps form individual identity as well as relational identity. There are sparrows, and there are eagles. A White-crowned Sparrow is different than a White-throated Sparrow, but they are more similar than a White-crowned Sparrow and a Bald Eagle. I am Sammy, and my sisters are Sophie and Sierra. We are siblings, but we aren’t the same things just because we all come from Mom and Dad. Naming something sets it apart from others, and thus after individual identity has been established, it can then interact with other “non-self” things. This special designation gives named things importance.
As humans, we love to name things. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. Look at Adam:
“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” – Genesis 2:19 ESV.
When we name something, we deem it valuable enough to deserve its own unique distinction. You probably don’t give the rocks in your yard different names. They aren’t important to you. If you see a squirrel in the park, you probably don’t name it. But, if that same squirrel were your pet, you would name it. Each time we name something, we practice this truth. How does your own name reflect that? My name, Samuel, means “asked of God”. It comes from the story found in I Samuel where Hannah prays for a child, and God gives her Samuel. To me, my name has always conveyed an idea of being wanted. I was asked for. The names we receive can truly shape us, and the names we give can shape others (check out this story about a father who named his sons Winner and Loser). Even within our names, we have freedom to create our own story. I go by Sammy, not Sam, or Samuel. Samuel sounds too serious, and Sam sounds like too much of a bro. To me, “Sammy” conveys an attitude of fun and creativity while still being rooted in the strong name of Samuel (at least, it’s a strong name in my opinion). Naming things and defining names is part of being human, and it reflects a deeper reality.
When I am running around naming off birds, I wonder why we as people love to name things. I think the answer is that we are created in the Imago Deo, the Image of God; we are mirrors that reflect that character of the Ultimate Name:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. – Exodus 3:13-15 ESV (bold emphasis, mine)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” – Revelation 22:13 ESV (bold emphasis, mine)
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” – Exodus 20:7 ESV (bold emphasis, mine)
When I identify bird species and record their name, I am very happy that someone has named them before me. It makes things a lot easier. But, I also feel this deep worship because I believe that when I name things, I reflect, in a small way, the great I Am whose power and glory is too powerful for me to comprehend. And, in this small way, I can serve the One who has named me as His own.
If you ever talk to someone who is serious about watching birds, they’ll probably inform you that it’s really called “birding”, not “bird-watching”. This term, “birding”, may seem like a silly technicality, but it actually fits the activity much better. You see, birding is just as much about listening as it is watching. “Bird-watching” only describes a part of it. Whenever I go birding, I often only hear half of the birds that I record. Listening is a key component of birding, and, in many cases, it is crucial in distinguishing different bird species from one another.
People who aren’t into birds are often blown away about how well practiced birders can identify birds just by sound. I was recently up in Portland, OR visiting some relatives, and they wanted to test me. So, they pulled out a nature app they had downloaded for their kids and quizzed me on bird calls. They were really common birds, easy calls. But still, my cousins were blown away. How do you do that? It’s simple. Listen.
Now listening is much different than hearing. Husbands seem to have perfected the art of hearing enough without listening. “What did I just say? Are you listening?” “You said that you like the velvet green paint for the living room better than the apple green. Oh my gosh, what a great play!!” Wives have also perfected the art of knowing what their husbands are really thinking.
Jokes aside, the point is that listening requires intentionality, focus, and a purposeful connection and relationship with the subject matter. Everyone outside with me at a certain location hears the exact same bird songs and calls that I do, but, to their brain, that information is not relevant. So, it’s tuned out. They ask, “how do you hear of all these birds?” Same reason you can recognize the voice of a family member or friend. You can differentiate your mother and father’s voice because you know them. You know who they are, what phrases they use, the idiosyncratic reflections of their voice, their pitch, tone, and overall sound of their voice. I know the birds, so I recognize their sounds, even if I don’t see them.
Another thing about listening: it doesn’t work well while you’re talking. I usually like birding alone because it’s hard not to talk when there are two of you. And, when you’re talking, you miss the far off bird calls and the quiet, high-pitched calls coming from the bushes. It seems like an intuitive concept, one that elementary teachers teach our children at a young age. “If your mouth is open, I know your ears are closed.” But, how easy is it to forget? Especially, in a heated argument. You’re not listening to the other person if you’re talking over them, and they aren’t listening to you.
Sad as it is, I think that the above situation is the default state of many of our relationships, especially our relationship with God. The Book of Proverbs is predicated on this idea of listening with commands to “hear” and “listen” and “take heed” scattered throughout its passages. A few examples out of the hundreds possible: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” – 18:13, ESV. “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” – 25:12, ESV. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” -12:15, ESV. Another classic verses comes from James 1:19 “…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
But, I think my favorite of all listening passages is a story about Elijah from the Book of I Kings. I encourage you to read the whole passage here, but here’s an excerpt from I Kings 19:11-12:
“And he said, ‘Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
Sometimes, I think we may complain that we can’t hear God clearly when we may not have put ourselves in the proper position to hear Him. Elijah was secluded in a cave, and so, he heard the Lord as He whispered. In order to hear the Lord, we must listen. And, in order to listen, we must know Him. We must relentlessly pursue Him and to be in relationship with Him. It’s hard for me to listen to, know, understand, and love my wife if I never see her or speak to her. How much harder is it then to try and know God?
When I practice identifying birds by sound, I practice in a quiet place without many distractions. I usually select one or two bird calls I don’t know very well and listen to them over and over again through an app on my phone. Sometimes, I use my phone when I’m birding to confirm what I’ve heard. After continual practice, I am able to pick out the specific call amongst a bustle of avian and human noise. You’ll never be able to distinguish God’s voice in the cacophony of life if you don’t first learn to recognize in the still and the quiet. After that, if you listen, you will be able to hear Him guiding you amongst the multitude other distractions.
“To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
– Proverbs 1:2-7 (ESV)