Methods of Birdwatching

by George Bailey.

During the lockdowns I have increasingly appreciated the birds. Paying closer attention to my local environment has led to extended reflection on what the birds might teach us about the ways of God and our life together. I have written about some of these ideas and images for churches I minister with, and recently for the Methodist Recorder – unfortunately not available online, but read the article here if you would like a taste of my thinking.

That piece discusses herons and swans, and the shape of those two arguments are examined below, but there have been many similar reflections about woodpeckers, pigeons, blackcaps, goosanders, geese, grebes and so on – all spotted as I gazed at the garden or walked in the park. How do these reflections work theologically? What methodology is in action here, and how does it function?

Since writing in the Methodist Recorder I have found John Stott’s book, The Birds Our Teachers (1999), in which he coins the wonderful term, ‘orni-theology’ to describe this spiritual practice. Reading his explorations has added examples alongside my own upon which to reflect methodologically.

The practice of learning from the birds begins from Jesus’ invitation to compare their simple relationship with God against our own struggles. Matthew 6:26 invites those who worry about food to consider how the birds are fed without practicing agriculture and storage. Stott points out that the birds are though not passive recipients of creation’s bounty, but active in finding food – for many this is their primary daily activity – and from this he draws the wisdom of balance between faith and works in our discipleship and practical living (though not in our salvation which is by faith alone).[i] A similar negative comparison is to be seen in Jeremiah 8:7 in which the migratory instinct of storks, turtle-doves, swallows, and cranes, who know their way back home and do not fail to follow it, is contrasted to the stubborn ignorance of the people who do not repent and turn to God. The pattern of these scriptural arguments is that the natural world, here specifically the life of birds, is in tune with God’s ways, but humanity is behaving outside of its own potentially divinely orientated shape and rhythms.

From this scriptural pattern comes the more general view that in the ecological relationships and behaviours of wild birds we can discern ways to understand God’s relationship with humanity. This is not ‘natural theology’ in the sense of seeing the natural world as a locus of revelation apart from scripture, but is a method by which a scriptural form of argument is deployed but now based on different observations about bird life. Are there then limits to this method? One methodological limit might be to insist that the conclusions of such an argument are in line with scriptural principles. Reflections on the relationship between individual herons and groups of herons (click the link to the article above!) would need to illustrate an authentically scriptural view of the church. However, we can be more optimistic about learning from the birds by employing Karl Barth’s later distinction between natural theology and natural revelation as described here by Keith Johnson:

‘…because Christ is the active agent of any revelation that occurs in and through the created order, the church must be willing to pay attention to this revelation and incorporate the insights it receives from it into the church’s own faith and practice. These insights may even serve to “illuminate, accentuate or explain the biblical witness” more clearly for the church within its own particular context, leading it “to preach the one Word of God in its own tongue and manner” better than it could otherwise (Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, p. 115).’[ii]

This relationship between the creation and revelation means that the birds might not just illustrate scripture but can assist the church to proclaim the gospel in context. I think this is particularly apparent when we escape a romantic image of the birds as purely ‘wild’ and instead see them in ecological relationship with humanity – a relationship that is, in our context, often harmful for the birds.

Growing understanding of the impact of human activity on birds offers insights which do not just prompt ecological action but also a rethink of the church’s self-understanding. My reflections on swans nesting in an urban park led me to ask how human response might be influenced by the ‘rewilding’ movement – a re-interpretation of ecosystems that lets natural processes lead rather than any desire to preserve a human-centred environment. Seeing ourselves not as agents of preservation, management or control but as assistants facilitating the work of nature, rather than our own agenda, might be an insight which enables the church to communicate the gospel in fresh ways. This way of thinking can be found in Steve Aisthorpe’s extended development of a metaphor calling for the ‘rewilding of the church’[iii], in which the Spirit is allowed to lead more freely. A similar example of environmental themes develpoing our theology, rather than the other way round, is Howard Snyder’s intertwining of ecology into the theologies of salvation, ecclesiology and mission:

‘…solidarity with the whole human family and all creation can be seen as a dimension of Christian community. Through communion with Jesus Christ in the Spirit and with the body of Christ, we enter into a relationship of mutual interdependence and responsibility with the creation that God has made.’[iv]

I recommend watching the birds, reflecting, and learning as a fruitful spiritual practice – one which I am realising can be based on careful and radical theological method.

[i] John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Essays in Orni-Theology (1999: Candle Books, Carlisle), p.16.

[ii] Keith L. Johnson, ‘Barth on Natural Theology’ in George Hunsinger, and Keith L. Johnson (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth: Barth and Dogmatics Volume I (2020: Wiley Blackwell, Chichester), p.106.

[iii] Steve Aisthorpe, Rewilding the Church, (2020: Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh).

[iv] Howard A Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven). (2011: Cascade Books, Eugene, OR.), p. 214.

7 thoughts on “Methods of Birdwatching”

  1. Thank you George for this. It has given an added bit of reflection into my sabbatical meditations. One book I have read that I found really beautiful was ‘Birdsong in a time of silence.’


  2. I was intrigued to read recently that humans putting food out for birds is resulting in some species thriving while others decline (especially those not able to use common garden feeders or shy of human presence). All sorts of theological reflections might stem from that observation …..


  3. Interesting subject George and, yes we can find positive analogies between bird behaviour and the ethical endeavour of the Christian life. But what do we make of the vicious murderous behaviour of raptors, and what about the completely immoral activity of cuckoos! I like watching the behaviour of birds, but I am a bit wary of ascribing human characteristics to any birds: Even beautiful, placid swans can turn on intruders, including human intruders, and reveal another side to their character. The methodology that is in action here is hardly that of love of the stranger. Peter Trophy made a point about declining species and my thought was how can we be sure that any species of bird is actually native to this country. Theologically are not all humans, and birds, living here as an accident of history rather than having some divine right to our “promised land”! Great that you should bring up the subject and I continue as a wary, but ardent watcher of birds.


    1. As birds are only following their God-given natural instincts, I don’t think we can describe their behaviour as vicious or immoral. Perhaps, Robert Fridge, we might turn our thinking on it’s head and consider whether survival of the fittest and establishing a pecking order are in fact inherant human traits too, and all this lovey dovey stuff is nothing more than gooey liberalism?


  4. In my devotional booklet (Bible Alive) today’s reading is Matthew 6:24-43, the one about the birds. The message I take from it is not to worry about anything but to trust that God will supply all that we need for this day. And this day is all we have, really. I have several ways of letting go of anxiety and watching and listening to birds is one of them. For me, hearing the dawn chorus in spring (the earlier the better!) is a perfect start to any day, and watching the birds in my garden go about their business of nest-building and rearing their chicks is a great way to get things in perspective. Thank you, George Bailey, for this reflection.


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