One of the greatest blessings of our Kansas house is the view from my office which overlooks one of the largest reservoirs in the state. From here, I am able to watch bald eagles ascend thermals, pairs of cardinals flit from ground to shrub, Canada geese march in regal migration, snow geese wander in more chaotic patterns, juncos hop through the grass, turkey vultures meander in summer soaring, and crows make daily journeys from north to south and back again.
These creatures are truly fascinating the breadth of form and behavior. My appreciation for them was first lit on a trip with NB to Wyoming’s Glendo reservoir shortly after our marriage. In the hours on the water while he fished, I began to distinguish turkey vultures from hawks and wonder about the genus of the shore and song birds of which I had not previously taken note.
While birds have continued to endear themselves to me as my knowledge and wonder of their patterns of living grows, I am hesitant to call myself a “birder.” I confess that this reluctance has much to do with the stereotype of khaki-clad, middle-aged couples oo-ing and ah-ing through binoculars, but it is also because the more I observe and learn the more I realize that I have not even scratched the surface in my understanding of these unique creatures.
In my guide book, I might make a small mark next to the entry for a bird I’ve newly recognized, but I am not looking to fill its pages or earn a badge. My interest is a bit more transcendent than a scientific endeavor or bucket-list pursuit. My mind asks
- How does a goldfinch that would fit inside my clasped hand stay warm (and alive even) when the winter wind draws the blood from my fingers in less than a minute?
- What navigation systems allow starlings to dance in their elegant murmurations?
- How is it that an eagle can propel forward into the wind without a single flap of its wing?
While the scientific explanation to these questions is often fascinating, the questions themselves are enough for me. These questions represent those intricacies of our world that have no ready answer. They point me to something beyond myself. To relegate my observation simply to personal enrichment would in some ways be a sin. (Not that scientific observations are sinful, but just not the role for me at this time.) For me, these creatures inspire wonder and delight in the beauty of God’s abundant creativity–and in turn–inspire praise and worship.
Birds have also taught me to pay attention. Each species has not only different markings, but also different patterns of flight. I will probably never be able to distinguish the many species of sparrows, but I can train my eye to see how one type might have wider stripe over the eye and another colored more gray than brown.
Even now as I write, I hear a bird song that seems out of place–a springtime call on a grey January morning. Looking out I see an odd pair, a male cardinal strikes its bold pose against the snow while the wren sits nearby calling out with joy. I am called to take such observations from the natural world to my daily world that may not hold the same sort of beauty or provide such ready entrance into worship. But this training of attention can illuminate the dark corners when I question God’s purpose and goodness. It gives me insight to difficult situations or people as I learn to see the layers of circumstance and pain.
Am I a birder? Maybe not in the traditional sense, but I will confess that birds are now a regular part of my vision and routinely take my heart upon their wings.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has great resources for bird identification including the Merlin app for your phone which helps narrow down a bird you’ve seen by answering just 3 questions. It also has audio of bird songs and calls.
*This post was originally titled “I’m (probably not) a birder.” In the last couple months, I realized that I probably am.