I love birds, and always have. As a child, they caught my attention out in the countryside, and I would watch them intently through the window while I was munching down my breakfast before school. Slowly I started to notice their distinctions and began to identify them. One of my most treasured childhood possessions was a beautiful 12-inch vinyl album of a myriad of British bird songs! Obviously this was before I became acutely aware that birdwatching did not exactly make you cool, and I was careful not to include this particular album when I swapped and shared favorite records with friends.
My love of birds, and the thrill of identifying them, has been a gift to me in adult life, too. I am prone to overfill my day and rush from one thing to another. But looking at the birds slows me down, lifts the burden of taking myself too seriously, and frees me from the illusion that I must solve all of life’s problems. When outside, I always have a pair of binoculars handy and try to identify whatever birds I see. They’re mostly common ones, but occasionally I see something extra special. I walk with my dog in some meadows near my house almost every day, and just a few weeks ago spotted a northern harrier (also known as a marsh hawk). They are not exactly rare (classified as “uncommon” in these parts) but I had never seen one before. I’ve since spent hours watching it glide effortlessly to and fro over the tips of the grasses, as it seems to have taken up residence. I hope it stays. Our property here at Cedar Ridge is full of birds of all kinds, too. Mostly common ones again, but just the other day, as I walked into the woods from the meadow, I came face to face with an eastern screech owl just a few feet above, staring at me with disdain, and surely thinking, “… and who the heck are you?” I just stood still and stared back—way more impressed with him than he was with me.
But birds are, of course, even closer than this. Our yards and neighborhoods are full of them. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Great Backyard Bird Count. This annual event, started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in 1998, invites everyone to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day for one or more of the days February 15-18, 2019 counting the different species of birds you see in your backyard or any other location. You can read all about it here, and enter your own data online.
This helps ornithologists develop an annual global snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds, but there are two other reasons why we should participate. Firstly, it will slow us down. Even for just 15 minutes, we’ll get to stop and take notice of the beauty, mystery and wonder of the birds around us. And secondly, we’ll get to see just how many different types of birds there actually are. Put up a bird feeder in your yard, if you don’t have one, and just sit and take note that the visitors are not just “birds.” There’s a whole diversity of house wrens and Carolina wrens, white-breasted as well as red-breasted nuthatches, large blue jays and tiny chickadees, brilliant cardinals, and more subdued but equally beautiful sparrows. There are over 25 species of sparrow in Maryland, but don’t expect to see them all!
When Jesus said “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26) he was trying to tell us just how much God loves us. Slowing down to look at the birds could help us feel the rhythm of love to which the heart of the universe beats. Connecting to the mystery of nature can help us feel that God is love, as well as knowing it. When we stop to notice the birds, we see their diversity. Each of us wants to be known for all the detail and particularity of who we are. You are not just a human. You are a very special and unique “you.” There’s not another one of you on the planet—never has been and never will be. And God sees you; God loves you! Always has and always will.
So let’s get counting!