‘Look at the birds of the air’

Photo: Birdgal/Shutterstock
Photo: Birdgal/Shutterstock
Published June 16, 2016

In his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:26), Jesus advises us to consider that—even as the Creator cares for the birds of the air—we humans can learn from them and trust in God’s compassion for all creation. This is a basic ecological tenet of the Christian faith.

How well do we know the birds and their capacity to understand such all-encompassing care? Those questions prompted new insights for me when I discovered The Genius of Birds, a new book by Jennifer Ackerman. I also learned more about the amazing migratory capacity of millions of birds that pay annual visits to our rich Canadian forests. A recent visit to the Boreal Bird Centre and Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory in Alberta’s North inspired me to reflect further on Jesus’ words.

“One by one, the bellwether differences between birds and our closest primate relatives seem to be falling away,” says Ackerman. She writes about the avian genius for way-finding, their memories, the neuroscientific relationship between bird song and human language, their nest-building skills, sophisticated social intelligence, learning and evidence of empathy.

The author informs us that “there is the mammal way, and the bird way”—two distinct but related operating systems, honed through convergent evolution.

The bird centre and observatory are located on a major matrix for annual return migration. Birds like the Arctic Tern congregate, rest and feed in the boreal forest on their annual 40,000 kilometre circuit from Canada’s North to Chile’s South. Others, weighing no more than a pencil, arrive after an 8,000-km flight from South America.

Yellowtails and Warblers are netted, banded and released here, and may head south to California or cross the continent, following the Atlantic coast to the Caribbean and back. Most fly 500-2,000 metres high, but some have been spotted at 8,000 metres.

What guidance do they follow? Signals from observing the alignment of the sun and stars or tracking the Earth’s magnetic field, mountains and rivers. Some simply “follow the flock, while others lead by intuition”—just like humans.

Of all Western hemispheric birds (totalling 3-5 billion), 93% visit our boreal forests at some point on their journey, even though about half never reach their destination. Their goal? Good places for food, nesting and procreation.

Animals and birds share an intelligence with humans, but it is a different kind. We can “look at the birds of the air” and appreciate their complex cognitive ability in their own right, and not because they replicate some aspect of our own intelligence.

For those intrigued by these comparisons, learnings are limitless.

Traditionally, Judeo-Christian theology has viewed humans as the epitome of God’s creation. This has provoked much conflict, tension and abuse as we struggle to maintain our “privileged” or “responsible” position at the top of the heap. It is intriguing and ironic to discover from modern science that creation is more a level-playing field than a multi-layered hierarchy.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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