Big and Small
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.