Angels in our Midst

No wild animal lives so freely and in such variety and numbers among humans as do birds. For that reason alone, our relationship to them is unlike our connection to any other wild creature. But there are other reasons, too. The intellect of birds is arguably the closest in the animal world to our own. Birds charm us with their ethereal songs, which are profoundly different from the sound of any other animal; in fact, some of the natural world’s most beautiful sounds emerge from the tiniest of birds. They are found virtually everywhere, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics and deserts to the concrete labyrinths at the heart of the world’s cities and the green patches of grass in front of our homes, and they are nature’s exclamation point, adding an unequaled burst of vibrancy to our lives. Birds came to the earth, an Australian legend has it, when a rainbow shattered and its shards of color turned into birds as they fell: the glowing, jewel-like reds, greens, and blues of the hummingbirds; the bold red, white, and black of the woodpeckers; the deep blue of bluebirds and indigo buntings; the slash of red on the shoulders of red-winged blackbirds and the full suit of red worn by cardinals…

One of the most important things birds do is remind us of our deep and abiding emotional connection to nature…What is going on in our hearts and brains when we observe these creatures? What moves people to spend hundreds of dollars a year feeding birds in their backyard, or thousands to travel the world to watch them? Throughout history, birds have been strongly allied with mystical properties. Might birds, then, also have things to tell us that science has yet to consider?…

In the end we will only conserve what we love, we will love what we understand, and we will understand what we are taught,” wrote Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forester. This book is my humble attempt to write about how a wide range of people interpret birds and to offer a few interpretations of my own, to teach something about this marvelous planet we call home and the fellow travelers with whom we share it, creatures who are able to fly halfway across the globe nonstop, dive ten times deeper into the ocean than a human, or fly backward and upside down and do many other things we cannot begin to comprehend…

I am in awe of birds.

~ Jim Robbins, The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future,  Spiegel & Grau (May 30, 2017)


Notes:

  • Post inspired by book review in wsj.com titled Angels in our Midst: “For mankind, birds are mediators between heaven and earth; they make our spirits soar. Bernd Heinrich reviews ‘The Wonder of Birds’ by Jim Robbins.”

    …In 19 chapters, some focused on individual species, others more general, Jim Robbins flits about the avian world, exploring the marvels of birds’ biology, the insights they offer into our own species and the history of their interactions with humans. His goal is “to help change the way we perceive birds, to move them from the background of our lives to the foreground, from the quotidian to the miraculous.” He shares his own “soul-stirring wonder” at birds’ “miraculous nature,” hoping to reshape our relationship with them and thus with the earth. The book is a must-read, conveying much necessary information in easily accessible form and awakening one’s consciousness to what might otherwise be taken for granted. Mr. Robbins, a reporter for the New York Times, says that he became a bird lover in 1980 while interviewing a falconer in Idaho. Together they watched as a falcon “dove, soared and wheeled. . . . I, too, felt I had, for a brief time, soared with the peregrine.” “The Wonder of Birds” reads like the story of a kid let loose in a candy store and given free rein to sample. That is one of its strengths: the convert’s view gives wide appeal to those who might never have known birds well. Most of us have lost the everyday connection that all humans once had with birds. We now have it mainly with the chicken in our McNuggets.”

  • Photo: wsj.com – A man feeds birds on the banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi. (Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse, Feb 3, 2017)

Comments

  1. I’ve always loved birds so I’m glad to hear you’re being converted. 🙂 I learned how to make the call of a pigeon when I was young and, even though some people call them rats with wings, they still hold a special place in my heart. My garden is visited regularly by different kinds of pigeons and doves.
    Angels are purely spiritual beings so when they make appearances in the Bible they take on the form of humans. There is no mention of wings. I think the authors you have quoted above have figured out one reason why people have always represented angels with wings. One reason, of course, is that they are God’s messengers and the wings represent their mode of transportation between here and Heaven. But the other reason is that birds do hold a special place in our lives (if, as you say, we haven’t become too detached from the natural world). They have also played significant roles in Christian history – just think of Noah, St. Francis and St. Benedict.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another must read…I thought I devoured books, but your appetite even beats mine (& I thought I was voracious). It is true – this fascination with birds, their colors – yes, like shards of a rainbow, their voices creating a harmony impossible to replicate, and the dance of their flight – hypnotic and in every way, lifting us up higher..

    Liked by 3 people

    • Love this: “the dance of their flight – hypnotic and in every way, lifting us up higher..”

      Liked by 1 person

    • And related thought from the review of this book:

      “Mr. Robbins gives much weight to new research in which bird brains have yielded findings that illuminate the workings of our own. Our brains, like our muscles, are derived from the same roots as other animals’. Emotions are crucial, and I rather doubt that “the biggest mind-related question about birds, and indeed about all animals, is whether they experience emotions,” as Mr. Robbins claims. This supposed question leads to another: “One of the still unanswered questions about birdsong is why birds sing. Is it only about sex and territory, or are there other reasons? For pleasure, perhaps.”

      There’s no need to choose. Whether it’s for pleasure, health or procreation is a matter of proximate vs. ultimate causation. There is no evidence that animals other than us (sometimes) act knowingly for ultimate causes. Indeed, most of the time even we don’t know the ultimate biological causation of our behavior. Mr. Robbins cites a claim that there is “no convincing empirical evidence that animals feel emotion, nor will there be since feelings are subjective.” But we are now far beyond the René Descartes robotic-zombie theory of animal cognition. Does the wagging of a dog’s tail or the snarl and baring of her teeth really have nothing to do with internal emotional states? The burden of proof is to show that birds don’t act from emotional motivations such as pleasure, anger or fear.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. They play the sound part in summer’s intoxicating symphony of lights, colors and sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i look to them for the change of seasons and am always in awe –

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I would not have thought bird intellect would closely resemble that of humans. As i think about their habits, however, I realize how there are similarities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And the author of the book review states exactly that: “Mr. Robbins gives much weight to new research in which bird brains have yielded findings that illuminate the workings of our own. Our brains, like our muscles, are derived from the same roots as other animals’.”

      Like

  6. I too, am in awe of birds. Thank you for this article. C.Ann Anderson 

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I, too, am in awe of birds.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes to all that. Birds have amazing intellect and definitely experience emotions – it’s a fascinating world onto its own…so close to ours.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Christie says:

    I am in awe of birds…you might enjoy exploring here: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1478#_ga=2.166087291.438609849.1496539216-620710956.1496539216 and here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search/ scrolling down yields lots of links to explore //they (Cornell Universisty Bird Lab) used to have sound files of all birds…these might be what they offer now: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/courses/be-a-better-birder-how-to-identify-bird-songs/?utm_source=websitek&utm_campaign=BirdSongCourses&utm_medium=AABads

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love birds! Great read 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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