From Silence to Song

By: Jim Virkler; ©2008

When spring arrives in northwest Illinois, our stony winter silence is broken by joyful, sometimes raucous bird songs. At this time of year, male birds stake out their nesting and food-gathering territories and proclaim themselves to be the most worthy mating partners. Now and then a squabble between male robins or cardinals enlivens the action, but the disputes are soon settled in favor of the dominant participants.

What prescribes the special song of a robin, a cardinal, or a bluebird? Plentiful literature on bird behavior is mostly descriptive rather than explanatory. Is there an explanation for the unique identifiers such as the cardinal’s noisy proclamation, the robin’s incessant narrative, or the bluebird’s liquid warble? In most cases the song seems to be intrinsically programmed. Young birds, however, also rely on listening to the veterans to master the finer points of their recital.

Later, the birds will construct a nest to fledge their young. It will conform to definite specifications. Will it be a bowl of grass fragments held together by mud and located beneath the deck? An intricately woven structure suspended from a tree branch? Or perhaps even a mere depression on the ground? And what about characteristics of flight, also precisely programmed according to species? Some birds soar, riding thermals. Others are able to hover noiselessly or rocket through a thick forest without touching a branch. Certain birds fly purposefully in a straight line. Some birds fly with steady wing strokes, others with regular brief pauses. Flying habits range from rapid, labored wing beats to slow, graceful, fluid movements. Many birds seem to enjoy following and chasing each other, making several sharp directional changes each second.

We have not mentioned the visual appearance of the 775 bird species found in the U.S. and Canada, or the 8700 bird species found worldwide. Their physical characteristics are the source of great wonder, awe, and enjoyment. Coded DNA accounts for each and every physical trait passed from generation to generation. Scientists may even be able to pinpoint the locations of genes responsible for characteristics such as plumage coloring and beak shape. But behavioral uniqueness may be a different story. Who knows the exact cause of these unique and mysterious behaviors?

Whether our amazement is triggered by watching neighborhood birds from the back deck or by pondering a bird encyclopedia, we can’t help but perceive that the beauty and uniqueness of these familiar creatures who annually proclaim the arrival of spring must be the handiwork of a Creator.

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