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.