The Theology of Birdwatching

“The Theology of Birdwatching
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 19, 2022

Psalm 84:3-4
The sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my Sovereign and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.

Romans 1:19-20a, from The Message
The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of God’s divine being.

– – –

Last week’s sermon about the theology of hymns and the messages they convey about who God is and our relationship to God seemed to strike a chord (pun intended). So this summer, we are going to spend time talking about a series of ordinary, even secular things that at first glance may not seem to have much to say theologically, but that are actually full of insights about our life with God.

Today, it’s birdwatching!

If you don’t think of yourself as much of a birdwatcher, then you, like me until very recently, have probably noticed birds that really catch your eye – a great blue heron gliding unflappably by on its way to a new pond, the neon flash of a Baltimore oriole streaking in front of your car – or the birds that are a bit of a nuisance: noisy crows, seagulls trying to eat your lunch. Maybe you’ve even put up a birdfeeder and thrilled to see a cardinal or a bluejay or some other colorful bird visit, but mostly ignored (again, like me) the commonplace sparrows and housefinches that are the majority of your visitors.

For me, that began to shift during the pandemic. We spent a lot of time outside, and as we walked along the Res or out at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, I started to notice, in part because I was pointing them out to my kids, birds that I hadn’t paid attention to before, like the tiny marsh wren that’s all over the wetlands but is small and hard to see amidst the cattails and reeds, or that some of the cygnets (baby swans), came out completely white instead of gray, a mutation called leucism.

But what really supercharged birdwatching for me was actually birdlistening. A few weeks ago I downloaded Cornell University’s Merlin app on my phone, which allows you not just to look up photos of birds for identification, but to record birdsong to be identified in the moment, as the birds are calling. It’s amazing – you just walk around getting your phone as close as you can to the birdcall (looking a bit like a crazy person), and the birds hidden away in trees or too far away to be positively identified by sight just appear, like magic, on your phone screen. 

Now here is where it gets theological. If you had asked me what birds were in my backyard on any given day, I’d say bluejays and cardinals, crows, mourning doves, and an occasional redtailed hawk – all big or impressively colored or with a very distinctive call, so I noticed them; and then a motley crew of robins, grackles (or is it starlings?), and a bunch of sparrows/finches that I can never tell apart. Maaaaybe, on an extraordinary day, I’d see a northern flicker picking grubs out of our lawn, or, in the winter, a shy downy woodpecker, both with distinctive coloring that sent me searching for my bird book.

Turn on the Merlin app and walk around our yard, though, and I discovered that we have Carolina wrens and warbling vireos singing gorgeously; gray catbirds talking to each other; chimney swifts and purple finches and cedar waxwings and goldfinches (of which I had previously only noticed the males due to their coloring); and, guess what? Northern flickers are in our yard all the time – we just don’t see them on the ground very much because they’re so often hiding in trees, giving off their short, falling little call. And downy woodpeckers are yearlong residents – who knew?? I spotted a fledgling and its parent the other day, all because the app had taught me to recognize the squeaky-toy sound of their call. Now on the mornings when the birds wake me up far too early, instead of grabbing my pillow to stuff my ears, I grab my phone, start a recording, and mentally say hello to all the birds greeting each other – and now me – for the day. As Jesus says, “Let those who have ears, hear.”

Birdwatching and birdlistening have taught me how oblivious I am to the world around me, filtering out all sorts of beauty and wonder and diversity and life because some part of my brain has labeled it useless background noise – “ordinary,” or worse, “annoyance.” But as a more experienced birder than I says, “If you learn birdsong you can read the landscape around you,” and it turns out there is a whole world out there teeming with the touch of the Creator. “Open your eyes and there it is!” says the scripture. “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to perceive what their eyes can’t see”: the presence of God’s creative, comforting, lively and life-giving Spirit just waiting for us to take notice, to open our eyes and tune up our ears. 

This is a literal truth about birds, of course, but it’s also a metaphorical truth about all sorts of other signs of God’s presence in our lives. “There are joys which long to be ours,” wrote the famous 19th century Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher, and “God sends 10,000 truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away.” What else are we too busy, too dulled to God’s presence surrounding us, to notice? What else is, like a northern flicker hidden in a thicket of leaves, invisible to us on the face of it but only too obvious, if we are but willing to pay attention, to direct our focus in a different way?

– – –

For me, that’s the most profound theological insight to be learned from birdwatching, that our world is simply full to the brim with God’s presence just awaiting our notice – but it’s far from the only one.

As I’ve dipped my toe into birdwatching, I’ve talked several times about it with Dan, whose birdwatching journey also took flight – sorry – during the pandemic. 

Dan spent time in his younger days on a trail crew for the Appalachian Mountain Club and was really proud of all the adventures he had in the mountains – but like me, he didn’t always pay close attention to the details of the ecology around him. As he grew older and slowed down a bit – some thanks to age, some thanks to having kids – he realized there was so much happening around him, all the time, and his natural curiosity kicked into high gear. 

“Where I grew up,” he told me, “there are yellow birds – but I never saw a yellow bird, and I wouldn’t have believed they existed… But just by looking carefully, listening carefully…It’s like the world opens up.” You see so much that otherwise just goes completely unnoticed, unbelieved, even. That’s another theological insight the great mystics of our tradition have always understood – it is so much harder to ignore God, to feel deprived of God’s presence, to disbelieve in God when we are paying close attention to the wonder of life right in front of us.

Here are some other insights Dan and I discussed about birdwatching: 

Although we tend to think of nature as something separate from us, something we have to go somewhere special to experience, it is really everywhere. “All I need is to walk out the door with binoculars,” or even just look out the window, explains Dan. “Looking out the window at work right now,” he said while we were talking on the phone this week, “I can see a red-tailed hawk.” That’s in an office building in Cambridge! Nature isn’t out there – it’s right here, right with us. We often tend to separate God this way, too – as “out there,” or maybe just “in here” – in the sanctuary, that is – but not necessarily with us in the mundaneness of washing dishes, sending work emails, or riding the bus. But it’s an illusion – as Jesus came to earth to embody, there is “no such separation” between us and the Divine.

Admittedly, it doesn’t always feel that way – sometimes God seems distant, or hard to perceive. But if we’re willing to wait, if we are willing to trust, then eventually we will see some sort of sign that helps us know we aren’t alone, some signal that helps us understand where God is moving in our lives.

Once, Dan told me, “I was looking at a thicket and saw a nest there of baby birds, so I went to get my companions to see it – and when we got back,” it was like it had vanished. He had to wait patiently for some sign of “movement that reveal[ed] the pattern” that he knew had been there all along, but that was, for a time, just completely invisible. 

Something else Dan has picked up from birdwatching: nature is absolutely incredible, and we really don’t understand most of it. Black-capped chickadees, the state bird of Massachusetts, weigh just a half an ounce – yet “they spend the entire winter outside; even if it’s one degree, they’re outside 24 hours a day.” How is that possible?? It’s a reminder of what Job learned of the magnificence of the cosmos and its Creator. In Dan’s words, “Hey dude, you don’t know everything – things you thought were impossible are happening all around you. We didn’t even figure out migration for centuries,” he told me, “there were all these crazy theories about where birds went when they disappeared for the season. Now they can put a small GPS on a bird” and follow it for thousands of miles, like the arctic tern that migrates twice a year from one literal pole to the other. That’s incredible! “They’re operating on a different plane,” Dan observes. “They don’t care about that thing that happened at work, they aren’t bothered by the problems in our country.” There’s a “sense of awe” in watching these creatures, he says, in part because “it’s comforting knowing you’re this small part of something larger.” 

If you want to tap into that sense of comfort, of perspective, of being part of a grand and mysterious whole by birdwatching, or maybe just some casual bird-noticing, Dan advises this: “It helps to be present, to really listen to what’s going on around you.” If you want to get the most out of the experience, you can’t be distracted thinking about your work deadline or your to-do list or the argument you had with your spouse. The same goes for anything worth doing – prayer, playing with children, playing the piano, listening to a friend going through a rough patch. If we’re simply and fully present, we get so much more out of what we’re doing. We’re so much more alert to the gifts God has scattered abundantly throughout our lives than when we’re distracted.

Speaking of distraction, there are so many voices clamoring for our attention these days that it has become hard to know which ones to give our focus to. With birdwatching – or rather, birdlistening – Dan explains that it’s a matter of “learning to hear certain voices – ones I went through the first 40 years of my life ignoring.” Before, he could identify the calls of maybe a “robin, a cardinal, but not much else” – but practice has helped him hear a whole new set of voices. The same is true in life – when we practice really hearing what our loved ones are saying, or what the quiet or marginalized voices in our community are saying, the voices that don’t get much airtime or of which we assume we already know what they’re saying – when we start to actually listen, often we hear the stirrings of the Spirit start to emerge from what before was just a hum of background noise or broken-record scratches.

Something really fascinating, Dan says, about birdwatching is that when he’s out looking for birds and he sees a fellow birder – usually identifiable by the binoculars around the neck – he asks if they’ve seen anything, and invariably the birdwatcher will answer “no.” Which does not mean they have seen no birds – as we’ve established, birds are pretty much everywhere – but rather that they haven’t seen anything interesting. “REALLY?” Dan always thinks to himself. “You didn’t see anything interesting? Birdwatchers like to see the exceptional,” he explains. But “even a really common bird can be beautiful” or intriguing, he says, doing a behavior you haven’t seen before, or simply a cause for contemplating the aesthetic wonder of flight. I know what he means – sometimes I catch one of my children lost in playing a simple game, or I notice two of you chatting over a picnic table after worship, or I intercept a stranger’s smile – nothing exceptional, but if I’m looking at it the right way, I see something so beautiful in the creativity, the community, the connection that’s represented in those mundane, God-given moments.

– – – 

Last week when I was listening to that northern flicker in my backyard, I could triangulate with my ears to just about where I thought the bird should be – but with the thick summer foliage, the shifting wind, and my being so short compared to the very tall tree, I could not for the life of me lay eyes on that bird. It reminded me of one more truth about God that I’ve learned from birdwatching: that we can trust that a thing is there, and we can feel its presence, even if we can’t lay eyes on it. We are all, after all, worshiping a God we can’t see, following the Way of a teacher no longer physically present with us, responding to the promptings of a Spirit that often speaks to us indirectly. That invisible bird call was a good reminder to me that if we don’t insist on God showing up a certain way, we are freed up to enjoy God however God actually shows up! We can simply relax into the experience of being loved, of belonging, of being part of that greater whole. We can simply trust – and train ourselves to recognize God’s presence among us, even when the signs are at first hard to interpret or not quite what we wanted. 

As Dan says about birds, “They’re right there – just look! Just listen.” Yes, indeed – God is right there – just look! Just listen! Open your eyes and there God is! Amen.