The Wisdom of Birds
God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore… He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29, 32-34 NRSV)
In 1 Kings 3, God makes King Solomon an extraordinary offer, “Ask what I should give you (1 Ki 3:5).” The expectation is that Solomon, or any other mortal put in this position, will ask for wealth, fame, power, or long life. Instead, Solomon responds to God’s offer by saying, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people? (1 Ki 3:9)” God, of course, grants this request for wisdom, and, because God is so pleased with Solomon’s response, God grants Solomon all the other desires of a typical king–long life, riches, and victory over enemies. The subsequent passages serve, then, to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom. First, Solomon settles a dispute between two mothers over a child (1 Ki 3:16-28). Then, 1 Kings 4 shows how Solomon’s reign flourished and the kingdom prospered. Finally, 1 Kings 4:29-34 describes how the fame of Solomon’s wisdom spread throughout the world. People from all nations flocked to hear Solomon speak on a wide variety of topics, and Solomon wrote proverbs and songs to pass down his wisdom. While one would naturally expect Solomon to speak on topics related to law and governance, the Bible reports that Solomon also taught wisdom related to the natural world, specifically noting that Solomon spoke on trees, reptiles, fish, and birds.
This passing reference to Solomon’s interest in ecological topics raises a curious question. Why does a wise king spend time investigating the natural world? If the natural world is the creation of an intelligent higher power, then it reasons to assume that the natural world is a vehicle through which the Creator reveals truths about himself and the world he has created. In this case, the study of birds and trees is a manifestation of a greater search for wisdom.
In the Christian tradition, it is generally accepted that the holy scriptures are the primary and best revelation of God’s wisdom. However, it is clear from scripture itself that the creation speaks a message that can be understood by those who pay attention. Psalm 19:2 speaks of the witness of creation, saying, “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” Paul’s explanation of the gospel in Romans is based on the fundamental assumption that creation proclaims the message of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20), and that this message can be understood through the creation. Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appeals to the witness of the creation in order to make the point that people should trust God’s provision and not worry about their lives (Mt 6:25-34). Even more specifically, Jesus says to his followers, “Look at the birds of the air, (Mt 6:26)” in order to support his point. For both Jesus and Solomon, watching and studying birds is a way to learn deep truths about God and life.
A Little Big Year
Amongst birders, it is popular for avid hobbyists to spend a whole year traveling and counting as many birds as possible. The movie, The Big Year, starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson is a comical look at this under-the-radar phenomenon. In 2017, a Florida birder named Yve Morrell dedicated an entire year to counting as many birds as possible in the US and Canada. She amassed a total of 813 species in one calendar year, the third highest total all-time (her engaging story can be heard in this podcast from the American Birding Association).
I have a personal interest in birding that goes back to an ornithology class I took in 2003 at Ohio Northern University. Prior to this class, my world was composed mostly of robins, cardinals, blue jays, ducks, and house sparrows–the types of birds commonly observed in one’s yard or at a city park. Studying birds and observing them in the field opened up a whole new universe of warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, and thrushes that I never knew existed. A spring class field trip to Magee Marsh, one of the best birding locations in the world, cemented my growing interest in birds. I enjoyed the class so much I convinced the professor to allow me to do an independent study in ornithology during a subsequent semester. For these two classes, I was required to keep a count of the birds I observed in the field. Ever since, I have continued to count birds when I go for hikes.
This year I started counting a lot of birds in February and March during breaks between sections of humanities class. Near the end of March, I decided to unofficially start a “little” big year. I do not have the luxury of traveling far and wide to watch birds. I also do not have the ability to take an extended sabbatical from either of my current vocations as other big year birders do. Instead, I have been trying to count as many birds as I can in my home state of Ohio. Even then, most of my time has been spent counting birds at a handful of local metroparks in the county where I live. As of the end of September, my list for the year includes 182 bird species, a far cry from Yve Morrell, but a notable accomplishment given my time limitations. One source suggests that there are 203 species that are easier to see in Ohio during any given year (although this project is much easier if one leaves close to Lake Erie). With a little more effort, it is possible that I will see most of those species, a number of which are just migrants that pass through each spring and fall.
The Wisdom of Birds
Spending extra time this year watching birds has reminded me of the wisdom that can be gained simply by observing the natural world. While nature teaches many lessons, two lessons in particular stand out to me each time I go for a walk to count birds.
About two weeks ago I went to one of my favorite local metroparks to count birds for an hour before my humanities class. Based on data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I expected to observe a high number of fall migrants in the area. That morning I was not disappointed. I added one new bird to my life list, meaning that it was the first time I had ever seen the bird in the field. I noticed a rustle in some low shrubs near water and trained my binoculars in the direction of the movement. What excitement when a blue-winged warbler, one of the most beautiful migrant birds, emerged in the center of my view! A few minutes later, I spotted a rare delight: a golden-winged warbler, a bird considered difficult to see in Ohio. It was one of the best hours of birdwatching I have ever had in my hometown. I returned two mornings later, expecting to see more rare fall migrants, only to observe a short list of common summer birds. My disappointment was nearly palpable.
On the same day that I observed the blue-winged warbler and golden-winged warbler, I also counted a hooded warbler. I was walking back to my car and the hooded warbler landed on a branch overhanging the trail. It was nearly impossible for me to miss seeing the bird. This was significant because the hooded warbler was bird number 180 for the year. Earlier in the summer, I drove forty minutes to a nearby state park with hopes of observing the hooded warblers that are common in the area. Before going to the park, I listened to a recording of the hooded warbler’s call so that I could more easily locate the bird. Even with all my preparation and effort, I was unable to locate a hooded warbler that day. I left frustrated by the futility of my quest. Then, two months later, a hooded warbler landed right in my path at a park only a few minutes from my house.
These two stories remind me of two deep truths about the world. One, I reminded time and time again that I do not control the universe. Maybe that seems like the most obvious truth of existence, but I have a way of forgetting it. I do not determine where a bird will fly or where it will nest. I do not determine if the sun will shine or the wind will blow, factors that can affect my ability to count birds. I wish I could control those forces, and, in a bizarre way, my mind almost begins to believe that I can and do. Then birds remind me of my place in the grand scheme of things.
Second, I naively believe I can control outcomes in life. If I go to the right habitat in the right season, memorize the bird’s call, and study the bird’s field markings, I feel like I can almost guarantee that I will see the bird. This is a foolish idea to construct in my mind, but I do it regularly. Then I get on the trail and remember that I cannot control what happens in life. Sometimes the birds are silent in the trees and stay hidden from my view. Even with much effort, I cannot see them. Then, other times, when I least expect it, they land right in my path.
Over the years, I have noticed that the truths that govern birding also govern my life. So often I fall into the fallacy of thinking that I control my life, and then I am reminded that God is the Lord. I also believe that I can dictate the course of my life through my effort and hard work, only to be reminded that God is the one who steers my direction. Like with birds, so often God has brought an opportunity into my life right at a moment that I did not expect, like a hooded warbler landing on a tree branch in plain sight. So whenever I go outside, I do my best to pay attention to the wisdom of birds because they have much to teach me about life and God.