Sunday, August 6, 2023

The Birds Their Carols Raise

Over these past couple months, we've been exploring the astonishing works of our Creator – the One who spoke and summoned the universe out of absolutely nothing, the One who stretched out space and time, the One who authored laws of physics, called forth matter and energy, set whole galaxies spinning, made planets and moons and all the celestial bodies, and on this planet made seas and dry land and atmosphere, carpeted it with plants, and summoned life to commence in the seas. And now, skipping around a bit biologically, Genesis credits God with filling the skies overhead with living creatures that go there. God declares: “Let flyers fly above the earth, across the face of the firmament of the heavens” (Genesis 1:20). God wants things to fly between land and sky!

“So God created every winged flyer according to its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:21). One old-time preacher remarked here that “the words of Scripture, if simply read, are a few short syllables..., but when the meaning of the words is explained, then the great marvel of the wisdom of the Creator appears. How many varieties of winged creatures he has provided for! How different he has made them from other species! With what distinct properties he has marked each kind!”1 Today, we're approaching God as the Creator of every bird, so that we can marvel greatly at his wisdom there – equipping each variety for their lifestyles in ways that amaze more the more we know them.2 Of the ten thousand species of bird alive today, the ostrich over nine feet tall dwarfs his cousin the bee hummingbird, who – just over two inches long – you could cup in your hands.

One thing they've all got in common are feathers, a unique feature paleontologists have worked out they shared in common with some dinosaurs. More and more fossils hint that many dinosaurs, maybe even T. rex, were covered in basic feathers, largely for display and insulation. That's part of why biologists today classify all birds – turkeys, parakeets, name it – as technically a sub-category of dinosaurs. That's where the feathers grow.

A feather is an amazing thing. They form in follicles in the outer skin that produce beta-keratin proteins, which are a lot like the alpha-keratins your hair and fingernails are made of. But for birds, these twist into tubes that form a main shaft and then branches called barbs. Most of them are those nice, soft down feathers – barely any barbs at all, and short shafts, so they stay very fluffy. But we're more familiar with pennaceous feathers, the ones with more pronounced shafts, part of which has no barbs (that's the quill) but most of which does (that's the vane), and all these barbs have extremely tiny hooks that hold the branches together, giving each feather its elegantly defined shape. God designed and crafted that feather. God made its nanostructures reflect light in wonderful ways, and he painted them with pigments a-plenty. Can you even name a color in all creation that's not somewhere in the feathers of a bird? I don't know if there are any left out. Aren't they beautiful?

And once God had designed the feather, well, a step had been taken toward what else separates most birds from other animals: flying. An old Christian poet told how the “Maker fashioned wings and feathers, that when they flap them, they might travel through the upper air.”3 But you'll also need to cut down on weight to make it feasible to get airborne. So God gave birds bones that are hollow with struts like a bridge – still sturdy enough for the job, but light and airy. Yet even while cutting weight, you've got to maximize the muscles attached to the sternum braced against the wishbone. In some birds, just two of those main flight muscles take up almost a third the total body weight. You'll also need all the oxygen you can get to them, which means a faster heartbeat and faster lungs – a sparrow takes about five times as many breaths as you in the same time. Then, last of all, you'll need technique – a downstroke that produces forward thrust, a recovery stroke that minimizes drag.

Flying is complicated! No wonder some bird species have lost the skill. But God gave the rest everything they need. To some, he taught such precision control that they can fully stabilize their head at a fixed point in the air, even as their body vibrates and darts around behind it. A hummingbird might beat its wings eighty times a second, four times the rate of its astonishing heartbeat. To other birds, God gave great speed so that they can keep up with your car as you zip down the highway. And a peregrine falcon, diving toward the earth below, can reach speeds up to two hundred miles an hour. So when God quizzed Job, “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27) – no, God's the one whose wisdom and word provide each flyer its flight. And for more social birds in the air, they only have to watch their seven closest neighbors, matching their orientation and keeping a just-right distance from each, so that thousands of birds can coordinate as a flock.

They watch those neighbors in part through the sense of hearing God gave them. Birds don't have quite as big a range of hearing as we do, but not only don't they lose hearing with age like some of us, but a bird actually hears things faster – in the time you hear one noise, a bird's picked up ten. And similarly with their sight. Their eyes make up a way bigger percent of their head weight than ours – some shaped for wide-angle vision, others for sharper vision, but they all see more light than we do, and a better range of shades of color. They've got extra membranes to keep their eyes from drying out when they fly, and they see so much faster than you or I.

With that enhanced senses, birds look for food, for which God invented beaks adapted in shape to the particular food of each. A beak is a keratin structure around the upper and lower jaw which can snatch up food whole and crunch it. Some birds are carnivores, some are scavengers, some go for fish. The northern gannet has airbags and hidden nostrils so it can dive up to 75 feet underwater to snag fish. Other birds like fruit, berries, or nectar. Some go for bugs, either by probing around in stuff, hawking in mid-air, or gleaning them off surfaces. And other birds, especially those we'd keep as pets, like seeds. God lets them store food in their crop, a stretchy part of the throat, so they don't have to start digesting until they're safely done feeding; then they pass it into a two-part stomach, one for digesting and the other for grinding (since they don't have teeth) – that's the gizzard's job.

God taught some birds to forage in groups, in which some serve as lookouts while the others hunt. Pied babbler lookouts even have a special song to assure everyone they're on duty, and they speed up their song when they're ready for a shift change. There are even some birds that forage in mixed-species groups. One kind of bird, a honeyguide, even forages alongside humans. Honeyguides like beeswax and larvae, humans like honey; honeyguides are better at finding than opening hives, humans are the other way around. So honeyguides have a special call for summoning humans, and the local human tribe's hunters have a call for requesting a honeyguide. (That seems like an inspired arrangement... though I suppose a bee is free to disagree!) Some birds even find tools. Raptors learn how to use stones to crack eggs or turtles' shells below. Crows not only use sticks, but can even look at sticks and decide they need to combine them into a longer tool.

But “who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help and wander about for food?” (Job 38:41). “Your Heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26). None of these birds would find food if not for the Lord who provides. There are some birds who engage in storage behaviors: woodpeckers who hammer acorns tightly into holes in trees like a bank, nutcrackers who bury seeds in the snow, jays who glue seeds to the underside of bark with sticky spit, and many species who jealously guard territory they find reliable. But most birds live day to day, hunting or foraging from scratch each time. That's why Jesus could highlight that the birds common in Israel “neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” in spite of their lack of anxious hoarding (Luke 12:24). That's not to say they have no risks! Many wild birds have only a 50/50 shot of living year to year – it's not a cushy or leisurely life, being a bird. But still they live by faith day by day, but simultaneously they work to hunt or gather what they're trusting the Lord to provide.

“And God blessed them, saying...: Let the flyers multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22). Plenty of what birds do, like any other creature, is about attracting mates. Plenty have songs, dances, colorful displays. Some cockatoo even use sticks to drum on hollow branches, punctuating their performance with occasional vocal sounds – in other words, the rock star approach! Many birds then pair off and support each other, comfort each other, preen and play with each other. And, of course, there's making some kind of nest, whether a scrape in the ground, a hole, or some kind of structure of mud, grass, string, straw, sticks, or something else. God bade birds build!

About a tenth of all bird species are cooperative breeders, where more than just one couple shares a nest – to the point where at least one species is known to kidnap chicks from other groups so they can grow up to help with babysitting! Other birds, like cuckoos, are brood parasites, meaning that instead of incubating their own eggs, they'll lay them in some other bird's nest, with the aim of tricking that bird into raising its kids. To defend against this, one oft-targeted bird lays its eggs with a special coating that wears off in a few days, so that any eggs that don't match get tossed; another bird teaches its eggs a password as soon as they're laid, and if the chicks that hatch fail to use the password when they beg for food, they don't get fed. But many birds just get better and better at recognizing their own eggs, so that the true eggs is the standard of authenticity by which to judge intruding eggs as false. And those eggs are active: sometimes the chicks inside will even chirp at their moms to turn them over so they can warm evenly, or chirp at each other to coordinate when they plan to hatch!

And who could forget God's gift of voice to the birds? They've got an organ called a syrinx, a lot like our voice box but lower, right where the bronchii divide for the lungs. Its membranes vibrate, letting many birds make some kind of call; and some birds are so great at imitating sounds they hear that they'll even do a decent impression of us, like some parrots. But most birds are songbirds, thanks to five different pairs of muscles attached to their syrinx. Early Christians marveled at “how some are equipped with melodious song,” and it's mighty wonderful today, too.4 They sing to attract mates, to communicate, to defend their territories – but whatever they mean to do, when they sing anything from their repertoire, they praise the Lord by using what he gave them. In all this and so much else, Christians have always been impressed by birds – by “the numberless variations among them in size and form and color..., their lives, their actions, and their customs.”5

Yet, in the Bible, God announces: “I know all the birds of the hills” (Psalm 50:11). He understands them – their anatomy, their behavior, the details of each species and each individual – better than the best ornithologist ever will. He cares for each chicken and each chickadee, every blue jay and every budgie. Like the song says: “His eye is on the sparrow – and I know he watches me!” And they're his: “The world and all its fullness are mine,” God declares (Psalm 50:12). When I ate an egg for breakfast, or a chicken empanada for supper last night, God shared with me what's exclusively his. Even to see or hear a bird is by the good Lord's generous indulgence.

When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he says he “bore you on eagles' wings” (Exodus 19:4). As God cared for Israel like a mama eagle nurturing her chicks (Deuteronomy 32:11-12), he fed them by guiding a whole migration flock of his quail to land in their midst (Exodus 16:13). Nested in their land, sometimes God's people could celebrate victory “like a bird escaped from the snare of the fowlers” (Psalm 124:7); other times, they felt like a desert owl or a lonely sparrow (Psalm 102:6-7). The prophets compared Israel negatively to birds: “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people do not know the decrees of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 8:7). So “our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the heavens” (Lamentations 4:19), catching them in traps. But God promised that if they only waited patiently, then again “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). “Like birds from Egypt, like doves from the land of Assyria, I will return them to their homes, declares the LORD (Hosea 11:11). And so he did. Yet still all of us live facing mortality “like birds that are caught in a snare” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).

And so God sent down his Son, to nest among us in our habitat. Jesus started his ministry only once “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22). And as he chirped good news everywhere he went, he wished his people would've let him gather them like chicks under a mama hen's wings, “but you were not willing” (Luke 13:34). Then, after a disciple denied him to the sound of a rooster's crow (Mark 14:72), he was slaughtered. But on the third day, he flew back alive to sing forth a Church who would become his Bride, “my dove, my perfect one, the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9) – and to her, he is likewise “my dove in the clefts of the rock..., whose voice is lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14). And before flying off to heaven, he sent his apostles and evangelists to soar as “eagles crying with a loud voice” the news of the gospel, down through the generations (Revelation 8:13). That gospel assures us that God's steadfast love means that all people can “take refuge in the shadow of [the Lord's] wings” (Psalm 36:7). We can live by faith, like birds trusting from day to day in God's providing care – for remember that “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).

Christians have always looked to birds to gain insights into God's wisdom – “ask the birds, and they will tell you,” like Job said (Job 12:7). Some birds, like those labeled in the Law as unclean for food, especially birds of prey, served as cautionary tales not to be like people who “grasp others in their lawlessness and are always on the watch as they go around, with an air of innocence, to see what they can plunder in their greed.”6 A person who unjustly amasses wealth is like one of those birds that kidnaps chicks (cf. Jeremiah 17:11), for ill-gotten gain has a tendency to fly away (Proverbs 23:5); while unfaithfulness is like deserting your proper habitat, your breeding ground (Proverbs 27:8). In general, Scripture warns us against flying to sin “as a bird rushes into a snare: he does not know it will cost him his life” (Proverbs 7:23).

Instead, we're meant to be a cooperative colony, watching out for each other as lookouts, pitching in together for the work at hand, sharing life together as a flock – but a very specific flock, God's flock. Some hummingbirds, for safety, build their nests as close as possible to the predators of their predators: a jay won't come after that hummingbird when that hummingbird's so close to the hawk! And just so, the psalmist urges us to be like those little birds who build their nests in the temple (Psalm 84:3-4). We, too, should nest in God's house, should make ourselves safe in sacred space, at home in the Holy One's hospitality, because the Spirit of the Lord is the predator of our spiritual predators. So “take refuge in the shadow of his wings” (Psalm 57:1).

And from songbirds we learn lessons from discipleship. A young songbird needs adult tutors to imitate; raised only among other young, its songs will be simplistic and stunted. And if we don't learn the Christian life from more experienced Christians, if we don't broaden our biblical repertoire, if we aren't shaped in full discipleship, then we're liable to sing a stunted, simplistic gospel, never realizing how much more we were made for. As for how to sing holiness to such a noisy world, forest birds set an example there. One way is to sing more loudly – to live holiness more publicly, more boldly. Another is to sing at a higher pitch, to rise above the noise – to make holiness stand out through being more radical. And then we can sing our song with more repetitions of the same elements – to live holiness consistently through the everyday routines of a Christian life.

Birds teach us, too, to be on the guard against brood parasites. Some are outward, as when Paul warns of “false brothers secretly brought in” as corrupting influences in the church – unrepentant in sin, twisting the gospel (Galatians 6:2). But still more are inward: the devil lays eggs of temptation in our heart-nests, eggs that look like good things we want to hatch, but be warned: they'll cry loudly, devour endlessly, exhaust us of life. Just as birds defend against brood parasites by knowing their true eggs intimately, so the more naturally we learn to recognize real truth, real beauty, real goodness, the less fooled we'll be. Jesus commands us to be “innocent as doves,” yes (Matthew 10:16), but our Maker “makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens” (Job 35:11). He makes us spiritual super-birds painted in his colors of beauty, if we fly to him as the Source of All That's Good.

And because of their power of flight, Christians throughout the ages have taken such birds to “signify those who climb aloft on the wings of virtue to contemplate heavenly things.”7 Or, as Paul put it: “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). That's the spiritual secret of flight – to rise above, to soar, to transcend the functional two-dimensional thinking of earthbound creatures, and operate in more dimensions, more liberty, more exaltation. Birds remind us to let our minds, hearts, and souls fly! So let's even now be “birds that fly up toward heaven, away from the ever-changing, shadowy, and tempestuous waters of life” in this world.8 There's an “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” for us (Philippians 3:14). For we trust that “at the general resurrection, we will be brought forth like birds that fly to the heights..., to be with the Lord forever.”9 And there, in the shadow of our Lord's wings of love, we will sing our songs for joy eternally (Psalm 63:7). Amen.

1  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 8.8, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:132.

2  Much of the ornithological information that follows was drawn from books such as C. K. Catchpole and P. J. B. Slater, Bird Song: Biological Themes and Variations, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Katrina van Grouw, The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press, 2013); John Pickrell, Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds (Columbia University Press, 2014); Roger J. Lederer, Beaks, Bones, and Bird Song: How the Struggle for Survival Has Shaped Birds and Their Behavior (Timber Press, 2016); Wenfei Tong, Understanding Bird Behavior: An Illustrated Guide to What Birds Do and Why (Princeton University Press, 2020); Graham R. Martin, Bird Senses: How and What Birds See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Feel (Pelagic Publishing, 2020).

3  Jacob of Serugh, Homily 71.1797-1798, in Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 55:38.

4  Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 9.12, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 61:191.

5Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 8.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:121.

6  Pseudo-Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas 10.4, in Popular Patristics Series 41:73.

7  Peter Damian, Letter 49.11, in Fathers of the Church: Medieval Continuation 2:278.

8  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 5.6.4, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:165.

9  Robert Grosseteste, Hexaemeron 6.12.8, in C. F. J. Martin, tr., Robert Grosseteste: On the Six Days of Creation (Oxford University Press, 1996), 198.

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