Our house in Krum has been a great place for watching birds. Perhaps the creatures are grateful to us for planting trees, for year after year they obligingly build their homes and raise their families where we can easily observe them.
Outside the French doors in our dining room is a handsome burr oak, one of the larger trees we’ve planted, a gift from Greg’s father. I think we’d been in the house only a year or so when a pair of scissortail flycatchers chose this tree for their home. The scissortail flycatcher is a gorgeous bird, mostly pearl-grey in color, with a long forked tail, a sweet face, and a rosy spot under each wing, visible when the bird takes flight. It will actually pursue flying insects in the air, dipping and swirling in mad pursuit, tail maneuvering wildly with its forks spread wide, to follow the insect’s movement. Its call is a soft, gentle, beeping sort of sound.
Our scissortail pair labored long over their home, tucking nesting material into a fork in the burr oak’s trunk. Occasionally the female would get into the nest-in-progress and try it out, shifting her body this way and that, then getting out to make more adjustments. The finished nest must have been ergonomically sound: she laid four eggs in it, and with her mate raised them all to maturity.
Baby birds grow quickly. One day I looked out and saw the nest nearly overflowing with young birds, close to adult size and pretty well feathered, but with innocent and rather clueless baby faces. They seemed untroubled by human nearness. A day later, the family left the nest; but later in the season, the parents returned to it to raise another foursome.
Since then, many generations of scissortails have grown up on our land. Sometimes, weeding the flower bed of a morning, I would see a family of them standing in a row along the fence, the youngsters clearly distinguished by their shorter tails.
Mockingbirds seem to favor the live oak trees. When they are not taunting our cat through the window screen, they make rugged, twiggy nests, in which they rear their noisy offspring. Mourning doves prefer the cedar elms. How could doves not be symbolic of peace, with their mild, inoffensive faces and soft meditative song?
We see a lot of meadowlarks, with bright yellow bellies and black accents, but only once have we seen one of their nests. It was a remarkable thing, a kind of tunnel shaped of living grass.
Kildeer, like mockingbirds, are the noisy neighbors of the community. They are remarkable not only for nesting on the ground, but also for being among those birds which really run. Off they go, legs scissoring wildly, bodies remaining quite level, seeming almost to glide through the grass, with no back-and-forth motion of the head, all the while yammering at the top of their lungs with their piercing cry.
Anna was about five the first time she encountered a kildeer protecting its nest. A bird which ran straight at a person, wings outstretched, eyes glowing red, yelling shrill imprecations, was an entirely new sort of bird in her experience. She ran to me, screaming, still clutching her fistful of wildflowers.
But that was a long time ago and she has long since gotten over the shock. Now we all fearlessly enjoy watching kildeer pairs do their routine of luring us away from the nest by feigning a broken wing, or, when sorely provoked, launching a full frontal attack. We let ourselves be lured or chased away, so the birds will feel that they are succeeding. We find their rocky little nests and mark them so Greg and Daniel can give them a wide berth with the lawn tractor.
This past Sunday morning, getting ready for church, I heard what seemed a lot of kildeer chatter outside my open bedroom window. I looked out and saw the front yard kildeer couple with their offspring, four of them, all miniature duplicates of the parents. Unlike most new hatchlings, which seem to reach adult size before acquiring adult plumage, and don’t seem to have much more motor control than a human newborn, the babies of ground nesters grow their feathers and become mobile almost immediately. They can’t spend weeks lolling about in the comparative security of a treetop nest; they must run around on their little scissoring legs, hustling up some grub.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. –Matthew 10:29
The life of a songbird is so fragile, it is astounding that the creatures stay alive at all. Their bones are slender and lightweight to allow for flying; they have no formidable weapons of defense; they expend enormous amounts of energy for their size and must eat almost constantly to keep up with the demands of their metabolism. Sometimes the balance breaks, and a bird simply falls to the ground. This never happens without the knowledge of God–and there are an awful lot of birds in the world.
The above verse, often quoted in a soft, cozy, feel-good sort of way, occurs in the context of Jesus sending forth his apostles early in his ministry to cast out unclean spirits and heal disease. His address to them makes it plain that he expects them to encounter danger from hostile religious leaders and government officials. All twelve came safely through this particular missionary journey, but later they all died prematurely: Judas by suicide, the others martyred for their adherence to the gospel. The eleven, faithful to God and precious in his sight, were allowed to fall to the ground like spent sparrows.
Why? Could not God have protected them? He did protect them for a long time. But God does not exercise a monarch’s control over this planet. He gave the dominion of the earth to man, and man abdicated to the devil. God is sovereign, yes, and one day he will take back the planet by force, but in the meantime he holds back, giving us a chance to come over to his side voluntarily, and allowing the rulers of this world to exercise their authority, which ultimately has its source in him. The earthly rulers over the apostles had decided that preaching the gospel was punishable by death. Therefore, the right thing for them to do was to preach, and to die. After all, if the gospel is true, there is nothing to fear from death, and everything to gain from faithfulness.
And so the apostles preached, and died. And God was with them, as he is with every bird that flies, and in its last day, falls.