The web of life

Birds like the red eyed vireo "share an intelligence with humans, but of a different kind," writes Wayne Holst. Photo: Paul Reeves Photography
Published August 29, 2018

“Nature is a fine piece of cloth. You pull a thread here and it vibrates throughout the whole fabric.”
—Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations, 1986

The truth of these words—spiritually and scientifically—continues to unfold for me. I’ve just returned from my annual visit to the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory in northern Alberta. The biologists I spoke with raised good questions and helped me better understand human and avian contributions to the sacred web of life.

Two years ago, I wrote an Anglican Journal column entitled “Look at the birds of the air.” In that piece, I considered God’s care for winged life and the amazing social and migratory intelligence possessed by birds. They share an intelligence with humans, but of a different kind.

In this column, I want to offer more recent learnings about birds and the web of life. I wish to write about human responsibility and stewardship, using a generous interpretation of Genesis 1:26 (GNB/TEV): Then God said, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small.”

Science is helping me to view creation less as a hierarchy with humans dominating under God and above the animals, to a more level field with all sentient life playing a strategic interactive role. This is helping me interpret the biblical passage to mean “power with,” not literally “power over.” It makes human stewardship accountable both to God and all of God’s creation.

Like the proverbial canary in the mine, migrating birds signal both healthy and unhealthy situations that humans are well-advised to recognize and respect.

Birds frequently detect danger, like the advance of wind, storm or a forest fire, and adjust to circumstances. They change course or lay low to avoid danger.

Nicole, one of my teachers at the observatory, says that birds have spent thousands of years evolving the instincts to migrate and this is not something they can change or adapt quickly; certainly not as quickly as we can change their environment. It is up to us to ensure that after their 5,000-km migration from Brazil or Chile, they will still find the abundance of space and food in the Canadian boreal forest where they can begin to recycle.

Juvenile birds often embark on their fall migration (which can begin as early as July) before their parents. Why does this happen? Adults may seem strong enough to make the trip, but after breeding and nurturing, they are often extremely run down. They have invested so much in raising their young. Their feathers are worn and fat stores depleted. Only when the chicks take off can the adults focus on getting themselves ready for migration.

Over the course of two weeks, most species do a complete moult and replace every single feather on their body. Adults must make sure their fat stores are sufficient and their new feathers are developed enough to avoid flight perils. It may take some weeks before adults are ready to depart their breeding grounds. What a lovely example of deferred gratification to benefit the next generation!

On the day I visited, I saw a mother and baby red-eyed vireo netted together. Mum had been previously banded, but not her offspring. They were travelling as a team and now, both banded, they departed as one.

What wonderful parables on the web of life can be learned from a short visit to where this matrix of nature is clarified by such experienced instructors!


  • 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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