Science is a study of division. The world is simply too big to understand in its entirety; it must be divided into sections, then cut into chunks, then narrowly delineated until it reaches a pocket of exploration tiny enough to finally comprehend. Yes, it may pain students learning to name polyatomic ions or memorize all the phyla in the fungus kingdom, but divisions and names expand human understanding. Studying birds illustrates this perfectly. By simply learning to divide birds into different categories, the array of birds outside the window suddenly explodes. There aren’t just sparrows and robins but warblers and tanagers, vireos and gnatcatchers, swallows, larks, kinglets, and cuckoos! From a loose perspective, songbirds can be divided into three categories: the noisy birds, the feeder birds, and the energetic summer birds.
Birds are noisy, but certain birds live to make noise. A group of birds obnoxiously mobbing another bird, maybe a hawk or an owl, is almost guaranteed to be from the Corvidae family, the proud, large songbirds like the brilliant blue jay, the clever crow, and the more solitary raven. Small blackbirds have their share of attitude as well. A never-ending flock of nondescript blackbirds filling the air with bizarre electrical sounds probably consists of starlings or the leaner and iridescent grackle. Other blackbirds are more pleasant, like the red-winged blackbird, whose iconic conk-la-ree song is greatly responsible for the calming ambiance of the wetlands. In turn, larks, although scarce, contribute background music to open bare fields, and if they’re there, the bobolinks’ piercing metallic song will carry across overgrown grassy meadows. Finally, orioles fill the deciduous woodlands with fluid chatter.
Then there are the feeder birds. A large portion of these is sparrows and finches, defined by their thick triangular seed-cracking beaks. Many of the finches are familiar, such as the bold red cardinal, the rosy-tinged house finch, and the bright yellow goldfinch. Sparrows are a little more confusing to identify than finches, but they can be divided into two groups: those with streaked breasts, such as the song sparrow, vesper sparrow, or fox sparrow; those with plain breasts, including the white-throated sparrow, the chipping sparrow, the field sparrow, and the tree sparrow. The other feeder birds include wrens, woodpeckers, doves, and titmice.
However, most songbirds won’t sit conveniently at the backyard feeder. Once summer stirs up insects, the insect-eating summer birds follow in frantic pursuit. For example, most warblers spend their time flitting about the treetops in search of insects to stab with their needle-like bills. There are fifty-four warbler species in North America alone, but their identification can be simplified by dividing them between those with wing bars and those without. Their particular field marks and songs can then narrow them down to species. Vireos are similar to warblers but chunkier and less frenetic with more muted plumages. They, too, can be narrowed down by the presence of wing bars, then identified by field mark and song. Flycatchers seem lethargic in comparison, sitting motionless at the end of a tree branch until they suddenly zip through the air and snatch up flies. They tend to look the same across species: small and grey with wing bars and little eye rings. But with practice, can be distinguished. Swallows also dart after insects but spend more time in the sky. They’re as streamlined and accurate in flight as stealth bombers, minus the stealth—swallows are never alone and chatter excitedly to each other as they strip bugs out of the air. Thrushes, the vocalists of the forest, crave worms as much as swallows crave insects and hop about the ground conjuring worms out of nowhere. Apart from robins and bluebirds, thrushes are tawny and spotted, the hues of their plumage varying from species to species. The songbirds are brilliantly colored tanagers, minuscule gnatcatchers and kinglets, and vocal mockingbirds and catbirds. There are also cuckoos, with their splotchy tails, wide eyes, and curved beaks. They don’t really fit into any convenient category, but they are related to roadrunners.
Of course, this division of songbirds is limited. In reality, the world of birds reaches complexities far past just distinguishing between two nearly identical flycatcher species. Nevertheless, limited divisions provide a foundation for unified understanding. Only God can look upon the world as a whole and understand every part. While on earth, we must be content with limited knowledge, but in the new world, God will perfect our understanding. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Nov. 2020, www.allaboutbirds.org/news/.
Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2011 ed., Crossway Bibles, 2001, Holy Bible: English Standard Version.
Peterson, Roger T. How to Know the Birds. The New American Library, 1957.
Peterson, Roger T. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. 6th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
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