I’ve often risen before dawn to sit outside under the stars listening as the birds announce the coming day. It starts with a tweet or a chirp, and then, as a crimson glow streaks the gray sky, their songs rise to a chorus as the sun breaks above the horizon.
But lately, there have been no songs. The predawn darkness is shrouded in an eerie silence. The first shadows stretch across the landscape where there’s no movement. The birds are absent. Where have they gone?
It’s probably a matter of seasonal migration. But this is the first year I remember watching the sun rise without a single bird to signal the day. There are no sparrows, no juncos, no finches, no blackbirds, no geese. Where are they?
Birds are, in fact, disappearing, according to a study out of Cornell University.
Since 1970, the bird population in North America has plummeted by 29 percent, from 10 billion to 7.1 billion. Almost 3 billion birds are gone. Scientists point toward climate change and the destruction of natural habitats as the primary reasons for the decline.
Imagine a world without birds to greet the sunrise, geese to fill the skies, trees without songs. Imagine the natural world replaced with concrete, steel, plastic and virtual reality.
Years ago, I visited the abandoned coal mines near Birmingham, England, an area known as the “Black Country” because of its early industrial pollution. We toured the caverns where men labored to extract the coal. As we descended, the guide pointed out the cage where they placed a canary to detect the build-up of dangerous gases.
As long as the air was good, the canary sang. But when the canary stopped singing, and eventually dropped dead, the miners knew it was imperative they evacuate the shafts. Perhaps the birds are sending us a warning. Perhaps like the canary in the coal mine, the silence of their song signals the imperative that we take climate change seriously.
Birds play an important role in the Bible’s redemption story. When Noah emerged from the catastrophic flood he sent out a dove that returned with an olive leaf, the first sign the waters were receding (Genesis 8). When Elijah hid from Ahab by the brook Cherith, God sent ravens to feed him bread and flesh in the morning and evening (1 Kings 17). When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the bodily form of a dove (Luke 3:22). Jesus urged us to consider the birds as an example of God’s provision and care.
Our planet is a marvelous, mysterious and miraculous place. There’s nothing else like it in the known universe. We share our space with myriad other living species. At the dawn of creation, God gave his first commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28).