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.