The birds of the air: From Holy Ghost to fall

The birds of the air: From Holy Ghost to fallen  sparrow.

by Fr Martin Henig


There often seems to be a lack of cheerful news  concerning  the place of animals in our world. Even the Church, in all its denominations, largely ignores the plight of our fellow creatures and places its  priorities elsewhere, that is in purely human issues. As a whole we Christians are inveterate speciesists. At best our churches hold a pet-blessing service once a year , which is mainly concerned with reaching out to children and other owners of companion animals, rather than to truly entering into the spirit of Creation celebrated, so wonderfully, in Psalm 104.

And yet, in this country, there may be more people bird-watching than going to Church of a Sunday morning…and good luck to them; they may find themselves nearer God by developing a greater sense of wonder in his avian creation!  Certainly, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds vies with the National Trust as one of the biggest societies in Britain. The annual RSPB birdwatch is a national event. Many people who are not members, feed the birds regularly and delight in the sparrows, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, finches and tits which come to the bird tables in their gardens. We all look out for the arrival of the first swallow, and we walk along river banks hoping to catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a kingfisher. And most people can tell apart the commoner species of birds.

Changes to the avifauna can fill us with delight or with alarm. I can remember my thrill at seeing my first collared dove, while inOxfordand its environs the highly successful re-introduction of the red kite has filled everyone I know  with delight. I never tire of  the dexterity of  the acrobatics of these beautiful birds. I gather that they were given a flying start by people taking the trouble to feed them in the Chilterns where they were first established. And recently we have had elegant little egrets joining our native grey heron. We, and I  speak for everyone I know, is saddened by the decline of  cuckoos, yellowhammers, skylarks and even the once ever-so-common starling..


An exploration of Biblical Texts

We have a very long tradition of celebrating birds, one that goes back to the Bible and beyond. I have in mind a particularly lovely Aegean fresco of swallows from the volcanicislandofThera(Santorini).

But I will confine myself, in this part of the paper, to Biblical quotations, of which there is no shortage either in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament:

With regard to the Hebrew Bible some of the descriptions of the Natural world which include birds are  purely lyrical or descriptive as in these quotations from the psalms:.

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.


By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.


The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted.

Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house. (Ps.104:10,12,16-17)


Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.



And most beautifully in this famous evocation of spring:


For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone:

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land (Song of Songs 2:11-12).

There are  questions posed to Job in the book of his name which invoke the mystery of a Creation,  which includes the  birds, made by God on the 5th  day of Creation (Genesis I:21-22) and which like all that he has made are designated  as good.

Thus God questions Job:

Who provideth for the raven his food? When his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.

Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? Or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?

Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?

(Job 38:41; 39:13,26,27).

Birds occur in some Bible stories like the raven and the dove released from theArkby Noah, in order to ascertain that the flood was subsiding. The dove first comes back to the Ark with an olive spray in her mouth and then returns no more having found dry land (Genesis 8: 7-12).

And Elijah was famously fed by ravens ‘by the Cherith brook that is beforeJordan’.. God said:

I have commanded the ravens to feed the there…

And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.  (1 Kings 17:4 and 6).

Birds are most often  employed  metaphorically. So the beloved is addressed erotically as a dove in the Song :

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and the countenance is comely. (Song 2:14)

The dove has wings which might allow one to escape from an enemy:

And I said:Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest.

Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness (Ps.55:6-7)

But it is God who provides such security.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.

(Ps 91:3-4)

The king of birds is the eagle and so:

They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary: and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31).

Finally (more negatively) they are a food source like the quails which fall around the Israelite camp in the book of Exodus (16:13), though the greed of those who ate these small birds led to a widespread plague (the anger of God or,more prosaically, an outbreak of botulism?) .

Jesus was nurtured on the scriptures, on the positive attitude to the Natural World which tends to inform Jewish writing and, moreover, he grew up in a small community with the countryside all around him ( let alone the long periods he spent in the wilderness communing with God). That informs what he tells us in the Gospel, sometimes with direct reminiscences of  the passages I have cited.


O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not. (Matthew 23:37 and see Luke 13:34) employs the idea we found in psalm 91

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 ‘falling’ is probably the ‘snare of the fowler’, again an allusion to psalm 91

In St Luke’s Gospel, there is no indication of snaring, and the market transaction is a little different:

Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God.(Luke 12:6).

It is true that Jesus goes on to tell his followers that they are more valuable than the sparrows, as he would in this pastoral situation, although it is important to note that the sparrows are valuable to God.

Then there is the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field.

Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof  (Matthew 13:31-32; see Mark 4:31-32;;Luke 13:19).

Here there is the Edenic vision of Genesis I , of Psalm 104 and Isaiah 11..

Most important of all are the metaphors:

In the Apocalypse we read that ‘the fourth beast was like a flying eagle’ (Rev.4:7) and hence it becomes the symbol of St John the Evangelist, and the bird which appears in all manner of art and especially as a support for lecterns from which the Word of God is proclaimed.

Most important is the  description of the Baptism of Jesus when:

The heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him (Matthew 3:16 , and see Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).

Although employed metaphorically, there is a reminiscence of the dove which went out from theArk, and the dove becomes a type of the Holy Spirit and thus is widely disseminated in Christian art from Antiquity onwards.

Of  course birds were employed as sacrificial victims.  From early times onwards. Abram [not yet called Abraham] sacrifices a heifer, a she-goat, a ram and ‘a turtle dove, and a young pigeon’ (Genesis15:9-10) . In Luke’s Gospel Mary and Joseph go up to theTempleto give thanks to God:

And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord. A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (Luke  2:24).

 There was clearly a thriving trade in theTemplehence Our Lord’s famous Cleansing of theTemple(Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15; John 2:14,16).

 Finally there is the cockerel which crowed three times as Our Lord foretold to signal Peter’s three-times denial of  Jesus.(Matt 26:34and Matt 26:74-75; and cf all the other Gospels).

To summarise, in the Bible birds are a source of delight, harbingers of spring, and they  are useful metaphors, and  powerful symbols,  but  are also a food source and a sacrificial victims.


Birds and society: saints and sinners

Attitudes to birds in early Christian times and in the Middle Ages inevitably drew in the first instance on such Biblical sources. They were also highly influenced by Classical culture which also had very mixed attitudes towards avifauna, indeed fauna of all kinds, from cherished  pets to victims of the hunt and (in the Roman period) staged spectacles in the amphitheatre.There was a considerable folklore to be culled from Aristotle, Pliny and Aelian amongst others, which could be added to the Biblical sources. Birds were accessible so observation, genuine contact with the world of nature can be seen in the case of the Desert Fathers, the early  ‘Celtic’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’  saints of Britain. So for example Bede in his life of St Cuthbert describes his relationship with an eagle, ravens and other birds. Bede is the author of the famous story of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, describing how one of the king’s men describe the life of man as like a sparrow flying through a brightly lit and warm hall during a winter storm and out into the cold again, a metaphor which shows a warmth of feeling for a bird out in a winter night.[1] Later of course St Francis, like St Cuthbert,  famously preached to the birds, and invariably addressed them as his brothers and sisters.[2] Birds often appear in art; two of the arms of the wonderful late eighth-century cross-head inCropthorneChurch just up the road from Holland House where this Animal Retreat is being held figure birds amidst foliage.

But birds were, at the same time, very widely exploited for food  like other animals throughout the Middle Ages, including, of course, by Ecclesiastical and Monastic institutions. Birds so exploited, apart from domestic poultry, ranged from  pigeons to poultry, ducks and swans. Dovecotes were a feature of many monastic and ecclesiastical  institutions, for example the fine 14th-century example beside the church at Garway, Herefordshire,  and they  provided a ready supply of meat in winter. Swans were much more luxurious fare.

The swannery of Abbotsbury Abbey is well known and has survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Arthur MacGregor has entitled the chapter of his book on the historic use of  animals in England, which deal in large measure  with the exploitation of birds, ‘the Living Larder’.[3]

Historically birds of all sorts continued to be  killed  for food. As well as larger game birds small birds were taken, by netting, by the use of bird-lime or by shooting. For the aristocracy falconry was the medieval sport par excellence, and practitioners included emperors and kings- Frederick II of Hohenstaufen wrote a book on falconry-, and the practice of course long outlasted the Middle Ages. Hawks and falcons so employed would have been pampered and well treated, but they were of course designed to kill other birds. Another ‘sport’, practiced in Medieval and early Modern times and now illegal inBritainwas cockfighting, that is making use of the propensity of cockerels to fight, to stage combats  for the pleasure of the men who gambled on the results of these sanguinary affairs. We can at least congratulate ourselves as a society for the outlawing of this practice.


Birds in the modern world

From early Modern times onwards and continuing, vast quantities of game birds were  shot, as they still are, though the slaughter probably reached a peak in the 19th century. Some birds, amongst them the sea eagle, the crane and the great bustard were driven to extinction in England as a result of this persecution. Gamekeepers are on the whole more conservation minded nowadays, but the killing birds for sport remains a major industry in some rural areas including of course the grouse moors of the uplands.

There are some conservation arguments in favour of hunting; the care given to preserving  habitats on shooting estates can be beneficial, if not ultimately for species being hunted, for other species. Hunting can even generate income to preserve moorland from encroachment by trees and shrubs. But that is not a moral argument, if one believes that killing for pleasure is always a moral wrong.

Conservation can certainly provide dilemmas. We have had to countenance the killing of introduced hedgehogs in the Hebrides to prevent the decimation of sea-bird colonies, perhaps justified in this circumstance but the elimination of the American Ruddy Duck to prevent it cross-breeding with the White-Headed duck inIberiahas proved more controversial. However, this is neither the time nor the place to debate  pragmatic arguments of stewardship but rather to muse on our very ambiguous attitudes to the avifauna. I want to do this now before concluding with some of the darker attitude to birds which blight our modern society, as they did ancient ones.

Birds are beautiful, in their plumage, and in their flight. They epitomise freedom, soaring as they do far above the surface of the earth . The Greek master of Old Comedy, Aristophanes, saw The Birds as commanding the air, between the territory of the Gods and the world of men, and in his play able to blackmail both sides..

Some birds, swallows and cranes in the northern hemisphere, for instance were, and still are,  harbingers of spring. A lovely red-figure vase in the HermitageMuseum, St Petersburg dating from the last decade of the 6th century BC depicts a man, a youth and a boy greeting the first swallow:

               ‘Look, here is a swallow’…’Yes,by Herakles’…’Here it is!’[4]

Other small birds have regularly been imprisoned for their beauty or their song, denying them the freedom they crave to live and breed. It is still going on, despite attempts to prevent trade in endangered species (such as macaws )., birds endangered by people who doubtless claim to love them.

Other birds are trapped and killed in vast numbers, even, indeed especially on migration,  for  food or even ‘sport’, so called, especially now in Mediterranean lands such as Malta and Cyprus. But we should recall that  it is not long since small birds were regularly killed and eaten inEngland, and dishes of lark’s tongues were an ultimate delicacy. Even now tiny woodcock are shot to grace the tables of the wealthy.

I have been delighted of recent years, as I have said, seeing the beautiful white herons, the egrets, have come back. They were mercilessly hunted in  the 19th century and earlier specifically  for their plumes. And they were by no means alone. Birds throughout the world were shot in order to make some unattractive looking woman less attractive: Birds of Paradise especially suffered in this cruel trade. Ultimately it was the plumage industry which resulted in the foundation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, so some good eventually arose from the trade which aroused the consciences of people of humanity and imagination.

Doves are symbols of peace as well as of the holy spirit, variously adored,  eaten or  in our town squares, far too often regarded as vermin. Do we think when we see images of doves as peace symbols, about letting  the doves enjoy peaceable lives or realise that real doves are creatures of the same God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit ?

Eagles, kings of birds, lauded as symbols of kingship throughout the ages have been mercilessly persecuted by gamekeepers, as have other hawks. Like other raptors eagles take other birds including grouse, and perhaps sickly lambs. But  after all the sheep and grouse, God’s creatures, have been placed by us in the moorland. As Psalm 50  cogently reminds us:

For every wild animal of the forest is mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine (Ps.50:10-11)

In short they belong to God, and not to us.It is not ‘our grouse-moor’; it belongs to God.

Again and again, with birds, as with other creatures we come back again and again to the abuses of factory farming. I  walk in to a church [Mary Magdalen’s]  in the centre of Oxfordevery morning for the daily  Office, up George Streetin which there must be 20 outlets, from restaurants, to purveyors of fast food every one of which sells chicken dishes, and all the chickens are factory farmed. We are dealing here with countless millions of birds treated as objects on a conveyor belt, not a beings created by God. The same goes for the eggs produced in battery farming, and despite a marked improvement here towards free rang production, male chicks , that is 50% of chicks are regularly discarded, simply killed on hatching. And now comes news of  the creation of  a  featherless chicken, a genetic mutation, produced by scientists in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in order to produce a ‘product’ that will cut down the cooling costs and will not require plucking! I can see no way that a project such as this accords with the best Jewish ethical standards.[5]As anyone who keeps chickens knows, they are intelligent creatures with complex social behaviour. After rehabilitation, the very small percentage of rescued chickens proves that.

Related to the domestic chicken, is the turkey, originally a lively American bird but now bred to be a plumb Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. I  tend not to be a very popular priest at Christmas, as I remind my congregation of the very fallen world Our Lord was born into, and meditate on the Martyrdom of St Stephen and the  massacre of the Innocents which are simply honoured in the breach as the poor oldTurkeycontinues to be consumed. Many Christmas turkeys are too fat to stand and in their short lives have serious problems with their health. They can never socialise or live normal lives. In any case, just as Jesus was, they are destined to be victims;  that is they are victims of our human greed.

And of course there are other abuses, most notably the very painful force-feeding of geese for the production of pate de foi gras , which is exceptionally unpleasant and cruel, just so that gourmands (gluttons) can feed on distended and diseased livers.[6]

And remember God’s Words in Psalm 50:

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

Human beings are far too good at putting themselves in place of  God, forgetting that we are creatures, like the birds we ram down our throats just as the Israelites gobbled up the quails,  and not the Creator who made each of us ad each of the chickens we raise to eat. We destroy habitats, inadvertently or deliberately. Sea birds are threatened, for example, by over fishing [but are the fish ours to exploit,either?], and the use of nets and hooks, and also through the accidental (or careless) discharge of oil from ships. There are many other ways, no doubt, where birds are exploited and abused, because we behave in that callous way to so many animals.

We misuse God’s creatures as though there was no tomorrow, although I believe we do so at our very grave peril. Our theme is not about favouring one sort of animal over another, about making sure that companion animals are well treated (although it goes without saying that that is part of it) but with a wider vision of justice, love, mercy and compassion which I have always believed should lie at the very heart of Christian action and mission..

For, unless we can once again re-establish the Edenic perspective and live in love and peace with all, how can we as a species ever face the  God of all love, the very God who died on the Cross for us, , as face him we surely will? Christianity calls on us to be radical, and always to go beyond convention, and never to be bound by the timidity of others.

That New Heaven and New Earth  has to involve our fellow creatures including our brothers and sisters, the birds, whose mastery of the air  reminds us of the flight of angels, whose plumage symbolises security, and whose gorgeous plumage is a foretaste of paradise. But the crowing reminds us not only of our betrayal of  the poultry in factory farms, but of another betrayal two thousand years ago.


[1] Bede,Life of Cuthbert (ed D.H.Farmer in The Age of Bede(London 1988), chs.12,19 and 20; A History of the English Church and People ( ed /trans.L.Shirley-PriceHarmondsworth 1955) ch.13

[2] E.g. the life by Julian of Speyer cf R.J.Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellmann and W.J.Short, Francis of Assisi. The Saint. Early Documents (New York 1999),396-6

[3] For the exploitation of birds see  A.MacGregor, Animal Encounters. Human and Animal interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One.(London 2012),314-50

[4] X. Gorbunova and I.Saverkina, Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Hermitage (Leningrad 1975) illus. 28 and 29.

[5] On which see Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok in A.Linzey and D.Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah. Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London 1997) chapters 2 and 3.

[6] Bishop Dominic Walker wrote a splendid letter to the Church Times on 18 March 2011 condemning  this practice.