Why I Love Birds
Well, it’s been a while since I last posted. I meant to wrap up this little series on why I like birds (and why you should too) in April, but I got whisked away to the field to start my research on woodpecker nest survival. After 3 months of hard work, I’m back at home and ready to get some more writing done! So, today, we will talk about the final (major) reason of why I like birds: to put it simply, they are my friends.
Over the summer, I was working in the Eastern Washington Cascades near Naches, WA. My work focused on monitoring the nests of the Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), and White-headed Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus albolarvatus). I will probably write more about my research later, but I just wanted to mention this to explain the next part of the story.
While working in Washington, I was asked to give a small talk at the Wenas Audubon Campout, a retreat organized by the Washington Audubon Council for its birding members. At the campout, I basically retold the contents of these last few blog posts in an interactive format to about 100 campers organized in a semicircle of camping chairs[i]. I explained how birds reminded me of the beautiful diversity of humanity, how they were free in their ability to fly, and, finally, how they were my friends in some sort of way. I have yet to discuss this final topic of friends here at the Wise Owl, so now, I will record in writing what I said in words to my fellow Auduboners.
When I arrived to the topic of birds as friends, I asked the campers to think about the bird that first got them hooked on birding. I explained how I believed that we all had a bird species that held a special place in our hearts, that perhaps reminded us of home or our childhood. I could see them nodding their heads. I asked for a few examples, and people fondly retold stories of their initial birding experiences. My story is about the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans).
The Black Phoebe is a simply-clad bird in the flycatcher (Tyrannidae) family. Like their name suggests, they are aerial insectivore specialists, able to acrobatically twist and turn in the air in pursuit of flies, gnats, and other insects. With its black head, back, and breast complemented by white underparts, the Black Phoebe isn’t particularly visually striking. Its call is rather simple as well. But, they could always be seen around my childhood house and yard at all times of the year.
For most of the year, you would see just two Black Phoebes outside the kitchen window. But, then, as spring came around, you’d start noticing a few more new additions to the avian family unit. Come fall, the kids would leave, and the parents would be left by themselves again, waiting for spring to come to start it all over again. If you were lucky, sometimes you’d stumble onto an active nest in the wood shed or the stables out back. Plastered on the wall under some eaves, it was a neat little cup made of mud and interwoven plant material. I thought it was so cool.
I love the Black Phoebe. They were a part of my home. Reliable and honest, they were always there. When we came back from family vacations, they were there. When I came back from college to visit, they were there. When I came back from studying abroad in South Africa, they were there. Whenever I see a Black Phoebe, whether at parent’s house or elsewhere in California, I feel at home. It’s that same feeling you get when you reconnect with an old friend. And so, the Black Phoebe is my friend.
Just as the Black Phoebe is my old friend, so other birds become my friends over time as well. When I was in South Africa, one of my favorite birds that I saw was the Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). Standing at 4 ft. tall with black “leggings” and a feathered “pen” tucked behind its ear, it looks very much the part of its namesake. They are skillful hunter, well known for their ability to kill snakes hiding in the tall grass by stomping them to death. Besides the obvious fact that it’s super awesome, this bird held a deeper meaning for me.
About a month into my South Africa trip, I hurt myself stretching out on a brick wall. I was a little zealous in my stretching (we were getting ready for a soccer game), and I accidentally pulled the wall down on my leg. It hurt[ii]. Needless to say, I couldn’t do much physical activity after that, which was challenging since a good amount of our student community life was predicated on physical activity and adventure. No longer could I play soccer or volleyball or hike to the waterfall with the other students. I was confined to my bed, alone. So, when we went on safari, I was over the moon. This was something I could do with everybody else (we just sat in the Jeep), and this was a place where I could treasure something held dear to me: the birds. Seeing the Secretary Bird stalking the savannah was the highlight of my time studying abroad. It still brings a smile to my face when I think of my South African friend.
You see, the beauty of friends is that you will have some old friends that you’ve known all your life, that will always be there when you come home, and you will make more new friends as you journey along to different places at different times in your life. During my senior year of college at Azusa Pacific University (APU), one of campus pastors gave a talk about friendships after college. She said a phrase that really resonated with me: “Some friends are there for a lifetime, some friends are there for a season, and some friends are there for a reason.” I think that statement hold a lot of truth, a truth that I believe can be demonstrated through birds.
When I visit LA, my closest friends and family are all there, along with the Black Phoebe. When I travel to a new place, like South Africa, new friends and birds are there to greet me. Everywhere you go, there is the potential to see new birds you haven’t seen , and there is that same potential to meet new people and make more new friends and memories.
The great comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he talks about making friends as a kid: “You like Cherry Soda?! I like Cherry Soda! We’ll be best friends!” As adults, sometimes it seems to be hard to make a new friend. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. For me, birds are a reminder of the simplicity and joy of friendship, and I try my best to carry that to anyone I meet. Who knows what great friend you could stumble into if you just say hello.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” –Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV)
[i] There was also a guy walking around our little campout talk who wasn’t totally in his right mind. He gave me a fist bump and offered me a Coors Light, but I declined.
[ii] I also re-broke my leg when I tried to walk on it too soon. The whole ordeal was a big mess and is a story of its own.
I was recently in Boston visiting one of my old college roommates. While there, we visited Minute Man National Historic Park, the site of the first battles of the American Revolution. I, of course, wanted to become a Junior Ranger, so I needed to complete the little booklet from the visitor center[i]. One of the questions talked about freedom and asked what freedom meant to me. This caused my roommates and I to launch into a philosophical discussion about freedom (and you could write a whole blog about the matter), but today, I want to write about freedom in the context of birds.
Many have debated about whether we, as humans, are actually free in the decisions we make, the lives we lead, etc. Within the Christian paradigm, different sides of this debate take on names like Arminianism and Calvinism, but we are going to skip this for now and look at freedom from an ornithological viewpoint.
Let’s look at the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). The Dark-eyed Junco is very common North American sparrow, found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.[ii] There are a variety of subspecies, or races, but they are all considered to be the Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos generally breed in coniferous (and sometimes deciduous) forests from sea level up to 11,000 feet. During the winter, they will occupy a variety of habitats including open fields and suburban backyards. People living in middle latitudes often refer to juncos as “snowbirds” since they always seem to appear at the feeder when the snow starts to fall in winter. All in all, the Dark-eyed Junco is a pretty common bird most people have probably seen before (even if they didn’t know it).
So, we know that the junco can be found in a variety of places across the continent, but there are some places that you probably won’t find this little sparrow. While juncos may occupy a variety of habitats during the year, they tend to avoid desert areas. I find this interesting because their wintering range extends well into Arizona, Texas, and Mexico, and yet, in these areas, they tend to stick to fields, parks, and other microhabitats found in suburbia. Why not also check out the desert?
The point here, I hope, is obvious. Dark-eyed Juncos don’t go to the desert because they weren’t designed to live in the desert. They aren’t going to go somewhere where they will most likely die! They are going to be found in habitats that are best suited for them. Why does this matter to us? Think about it. With their wings, juncos have the freedom to theoretically fly anywhere. If a junco wanted to fly to the middle of the Sonoran Desert, it very well could (and sometimes they do). But, most of the time, they don’t because they wouldn’t thrive there. Instead, they stick with the habitats where they will likely survive.
Here is the parallel I see between juncos and humans: as people, we have the capability to make a wide variety of choices. I can choose to have milk or coffee with my breakfast[iii]. I can choose my profession. I can choose my words towards my wife, family, and friends. I could choose to rob a bank if I wanted to (but I don’t want to). But, to me, that is not what this idea of freedom really means. The junco is free not when it chooses to fly to the desert, but when it chooses to be within the environment it was designed to be in. We are free not when we choose to do A or B, but when we choose what’s best for us i.e. to follow God and His purpose for us.
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” This is also the same Jesus who says in Matthew 16:14 to “deny [yourself], take up [your] cross and follow me.” That latter quote doesn’t sound very freeing, but think of it in light of the junco. The junco thrives and lives abundantly when it chooses to follow its designed purpose, not its own path[iv]. We thrive when we deny our own plan and follow God. To me, that’s freedom. Knowing God’s plan and His purpose for us is a whole other matter. The point is to simply draw near to God. When we give up control over our own lives, then we are free.
This is the third reason why I like birds. With their ability to fly, they seem to have a sense of freedom, a choice of where to go. They are not bound by gravity like we are. They have no limitations! And yet, they choose to go where God has intended them to go, and that is when we are all truly free.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” –Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)
[i] I actually didn’t have time to complete it, so I mailed it in. They must think I’m crazy.
[iii] But, I will always choose milk because coffee is gross.
[iv] Not that juncos can really decide their own path, but you get the point.
Have you ever met someone and thought to yourself, “Wow, you are totally different from me.” Maybe they are taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, quieter or louder. My wife and I are a lot like that. I am almost a foot taller and have a good 80 lbs. on her. I am loud and engaging, while she is more reserved and listening. We are very different people, but combined together, I think we make a wonderful blend. Birds are a lot like that as well.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how birds remind me of God’s continual care for us. Today, I want to show how the diversity of birds mirrors the diversity of people and how that reflects on God’s person. If you lived long enough, you’ve ran into a wide cast of characters in this world, and if you’ve birded long enough, you’ve seen the same as well. Think about it. There are 7.4 billion, and counting, people in this world and around 10,000 bird species. Difference is bound to be grand! I, of course, cannot possibly exhaust this list of human and bird diversity, so I am going to just make a few general observations on birds, linking them back to thoughts on people.
Let’s start with the largest and the smallest. The biggest bird alive today is the North African Ostrich (Struthio camelus) with males coming in around 9 ft. tall and close to 350 lbs[i]!
Contrast that with the smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), found in Cuba and measuring a whopping 0.0556 oz. and 2.75 in. long! Now, imagine all the birds in between. Historically, the ostrich pales compared to now-extinct Elephant Bird (Aepyornis maximus), which totaled 11 ft. in height and over 1,000 lbs! These kind of figures blow my mind. So, maybe you’re naturally on the smaller side, or maybe you’re naturally on the bigger side. Either way, I think you can relate with birds and take joy in their (and our) differences. If you want to read more “biggest and smallest” when it comes to birds, check out this fun link from the Birds of a Feather B&B in British Columbia[ii]!
Birds not only come in different shapes and sizes, but they live out different lifestyles as well. Take the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) living in the rainforests of South America, for example. At 20 lbs. and with a 7 ft. wingspan, it rivals other eagles for title of the largest eagle in the world. In fact, it has the largest talons of any eagle in the world and is incredibly strong, able to capture and fly away with prey that weighs as much as itself (like this unfortunate sloth). Or how about the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), the fastest animal in the world, residing right here in North America. When pursuing prey, it flies above its target to gain elevation. Then, it stoops, twists, and turns in a spiral dive at over 200 mph[iii], hitting its unsuspecting quarry with incredible force and usually killing said quarry instantly.
Some birds aren’t necessarily incredibly fast or strong but can give a marathoner a run for his/her money. The Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) has the longest migration of any animal, migrating from, yup you guessed it, the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and back each year. This circumpolar journey can total over 50,000 miles for some birds! Dennis Kimetto holds the marathon world record at 2:02:57. To give you an appreciation of this distance, let’s assume Dennis Kimetto decides to run this migration route[iv]. Traveling at his marathon world-record pace, it would take him approximately 6 months of non-stop, 24-7 running to complete this grueling journey, according to my back-of-the-napkin calculations. Researchers have estimated that over the course of its 30-year lifetime (on average) the Arctic Tern travels more than 1.25 million miles (the distance to the moon and back, three times)! Whew. Makes me tired thinking about it.
So we’ve talked about some birds with incredible adaptations for flight. How about those that can’t get off the ground? Like penguins! The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the largest of the penguins, coming in a bit over 4 ft. tall. But, this tweenager-sized bird can dive deeper than 1,800 feet hunting for fish and krill in the cold Antarctic Ocean! Finally, we can’t talk about flightless birds without talking about the kiwis (Apteryx). They are a group of flightless birds living in New Zealand, most closely related to emus. Their wings are just tiny stubs, and they are primarily nocturnal, foraging for food in the dark[v]. How do they manage this? Well, they have an extraordinary sense of smell, unusual among birds, and with sensitive nostrils at the end of their long beak, they just simply stick their bill into the ground and smell away for yummy invertebrates!
Amazing stuff these days. So, maybe you have the strength of the eagle, or the speed of the falcon. Perhaps, you’re an endurance kind of person like the tern, or maybe you prefer the water like the penguin. Or, quite possibly for most of us, you can relate with the kiwi, living life your own unique way.
Finally, when it comes to love, each bird has its own set of moves, much like people. Living in Latin America, the Red-capped Mannakin (Ceratopipra mentalis)loves to show off for potential lovers, dancing on his branch in style rivaling Michael Jackson. Birds of paradise (yes that’s what they are actually called) found in Papa New Guinea put on a bizarre, flashy display show similar to something from Alice in Wonderland, relying on their dashing good looks and sense of style to entice a beautiful beau.
Some of the more drab-colored birds rely more on their song than their plumage[vi]. Our own Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) can be heard calling for love throughout the United States during spring and summer, singing its ethereal, ascending song in hopes of finding “the one”[vii]. In Australia, the Superb Lyrebird impresses with its mimicry ability, able to imitate the sounds of a camera shutter and construction machines. The Vogelkop Bowerbird (Amblyornis inornata) takes it one step further. He demonstrates what a valuable domestic partner he is by building a house complete with roofing and lawn decor on the New Guinean forest floor. So, maybe you advance your love life through dance, looks, song, humor, manual labor, or some combinations of these approaches. Some of us have the looks. Some of us have the charm. Some are lucky enough to have to both. Whatever you have, I hope it’s working out for you! My wife says I possess all these qualities, so I’ve got that going for me.
In showing you a small glimpse into the wild variety of birds, I hope you can appreciate the variety in the people God has created. In Genesis 1:21 (ESV) it says, “So God created…every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” Similarly, in Gensis 1:27 (ESV), “…God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” After blessing humankind and the rest of creation, God steps back from his handiwork with pleasure. Genesis 1:31a (ESV) states, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good…” (italics mine). I think these passage highlight the beauty of God’s creation and how its diversity, especially human diversity, reflects God’s creative being and image. The Psalmist says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13, ESV). God didn’t just stich together King David, he formed all of us with all our different looks, abilities, and personalities. If you went to Sunday School in the 90’s like I did, you might remember the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. Let me close with the following lines: “Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
[i] Does it ever scare you how much bigger animals can be compared to than us?
[iii] A man named Ken Franklin trained a Peregrine Falcon named Frightful to fly alongside him during skydives, chasing a meat lure. Using a small computer chip, he was able to clock Frightful at 242 mph. For more, check out this article in Air and Space Magazine by Tom Harpole.
[iv] This isn’t technically possible since most of it is over the Atlantic Ocean, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it is.
[v] Some argue that this may be a new adaptation to hide from mammalian predators people have introduced. In sanctuaries where predators have been removed, kiwis can often be seen out and about during the day. See Davies, S.J.J.F. (2003). “8 Birds I Tinamous and Ratites to Hoatzins”. In Hutchins, Michael. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia (2 ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. pp. 89–90.
[vi] I have found that in the bird world, the pretty birds don’t always have the pretty songs while the plain birds make up for their appearance with sweet, melodious sounds.
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.