Liz Charlotte Grant is a freelance writer and Christian speaker in Denver. She has writing published at the Huffington Post, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal’s blog, Ruminate Magazine’s blog, and Geez Magazine, among others. The Collegeville Institute awarded her a residency in 2019 and 2020. Find her at LizCharlotteGrant.com or on Instagram @LizCharlotteGrant.
In elementary school, I bent toward the bottom of a cardboard box, where a herd of fluffy chicks squeaked a raucous chorus—a representation of Easter to my Christian school teacher. During middle school, I took to heart the story of the ugly duckling, as I personally reckoned with my braces, boney elbows and knees, and pudge around the waist. Vs of geese honked overhead during field hockey games, and I threw French fries at seagulls at the beach. Birds were around, all the time.
But in Sunday school, I began to understand that birds were not merely nuisances or ornamental. The Scriptures describe how God created each species of winged creature (Gen. 1:20) and how God safeguards each bird attentively (Matt. 10:29). Likewise, as created beings tasked with attending to God’s creation, humankind’s continuity with birds—such as in their unique form of consciousness and their interconnectedness to human lives—illuminates our calling to care for birds, both in our backyards and in our world.
Birds appear throughout the Bible. In the story of the Flood, God directed Noah to bring two of every kind of the bird onto the Ark (Gen. 6:20)—the first animal class to be included—and then Noah sent out two birds—a raven and a dove—to find dry land (Gen. 8:6–12). The Israelites ate quail during their desert wandering, and ravens brought food to the prophet Elijah at God’s prompting (1 Kings 17:2–6). And in the Gospels, a dove represented the Holy Spirit’s presence at the baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
Every culture has developed symbolism and made myths around birds. Take Aesop’s fables, for example. The study of birds began early in humanity’s history, with the first recorded observations coming from Aristotle and later Pliny. Both ancients wrote comprehensive natural histories, and their study marks the beginnings of ornithology.
Yet while many bird behaviors were easy enough to decipher upon close inspection—Aristotle, for instance, correctly chronicled the food birds ate, the way they reproduced, their habitats, and their specific calls—their migration remained a mystery. Aristotle concluded that swallows hibernated in winter, leading him to believe that all birds hid in dens during winter, while he ignored evidence from travelers who had spotted Grecian cranes who had migrated to Egypt for the winter months. In fact, as hobby birder Chris Petrak puts it, “Try not to laugh. [Aristotle’s] conclusion was accepted wisdom for over 2,000 years.”
Pioneers in science and theology, such as 17th-century naturalist John Ray, had a different take on the migratory patterns of birds. In his work, Wisdom of God, he says:
The migration of Birds from an hotter to a colder Country, or a colder to an hotter, according to the Seasons of the Year, as their Nature is, I know not how to give an account of, it is so strange and admirable. What moves them to shift their Quarters? …Think we that the Quails for Instance, could see quite cross the Mediterrownean Sea? And yet, it’s clear, they fly out of Italy into Africk… That they should thus shift Places, is very convenient for them, and accordingly we see they do it; which seems to be impossible they should, unless themselves were endu’d with Reason, or directed and acted by a superior intelligent Cause. [sic]
To Ray, the origin of these yearly flights made no sense unless bi
rds possessed a mind, or, in lieu of individual consciousness, a higher consciousness (God) that compelled the birds to travel. Ray, like many scientists before and after him, studied the natural world to identify the hand of God within it, so his conclusion makes sense—though to 21st-century evangelicals, it can seem trite.
The “God of the gaps” theory uses God to explain what humans cannot by scientific observation, and Ray adopts the theory here. The problem with “God of the gaps,” however, is that God appears weaker or even irrelevant if humans discover an observable cause later on.
Yet Ray’s assertion of birds possessing “Reason” that he could not explain could be interpreted as wiser than he knew; today’s scientists have discovered that birds do have a form of consciousness.
Take the crow. Recent studies have confirmed that crows can recognize human faces. In fact, the crow and its cousin, the raven, appear to hold grudges, remembering which experimenting scientists fed or snubbed them.
Crow researcher Kevin McGowan says of his subjects, “The crows around here, they know my face. … They know my car, they know my walk, they know me [even] 10 miles away from where they’ve ever encountered me before.”
Crows possess brains the size of a chimpanzee’s. New Caledonian crows use tools like sticks, twigs, and dry leaf stems to retrieve bugs. A crow in captivity even bent a piece of straight wire to hook food.
Yet crows and ravens are not the only impressive “bird brains”: Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, a classic animal cognition test that proves animals understand both how mirrors work and also that they are viewing themselves in the glass. (This test has also been passed by mammals such as bottlenose dolphins, and Asian elephants, and chimpanzees among other apes; it’s one often failed by human babies until they’re 18 months old.)
Western scrub jays that stole collected food from other jays’ hiding places showed that they could remember which jays might have observed their hiding spot, and then hid their food again after the observer had left. They could anticipate theft from another bird (because of their own thievery!) and prepare for it, showing future thinking and the ability to anticipate another’s behavior.
Cockatoos can make music and keep a beat. Grackles can solve puzzles for food. And one African grey parrot trained by researcher Irene Pepperberg mastered speaking 100 English words in context, along with the abstract concepts of “same and different” and zero. (Another of Pepperberg’s parrots can identify shapes and colors.)
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Source: Christianity Today