Wednesday, March 17, 2010

State of the Birds Report

Despite the continuation of cool and cloudy weather in much of Nebraska, the birds are singing in the mornings, and flocks of migratory birds are coming back from the south. Even the birds that stay around in the winter are more in evidence, coming more frequently to feeders and generally being more active than they were in the coldest part of the winter.

It’s a good time for the appearance of this year’s State of the Birds report, released on March 11 by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The report is the result of a collaboration among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other federal agencies, and experts from conservation agencies. Last year’s report said that of the nation’s 800 bird species, nearly a third are endangered, threatened, or in “significant decline”. According to the news release announcing this year’s report, climate change adds additional stresses to the environment that will increase the threat to bird species. Climate change and its effect on birds in a variety of habitats is the central focus of this year’s report.

Reading through this report, Matthew’s passage about the “birds of the air” comes to mind: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6.26) This passage, along with Matthew 10.29-31 and Luke 12.6-7 (“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”) are meant to remind us of how much God cares for humankind; if God cares about what happens to a tiny sparrow, goes the argument, then God must surely care about what happens to each human being. As an old Gospel song puts it: “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free./ [God’s] eye is on the sparrow,/ And I know [God] watches me.” But the passage also reminds us that God’s eye is indeed on the sparrow, that God cares about every creature. The state of the birds matters to God; if it’s important to God, then it should be important to us, who have been given dominion over the Earth and its creatures.

The robins singing in the early spring always remind me of a junior high English class when 'harbinger' was one of our vocabulary words; the example we memorized was “The robin is a harbinger of spring.” The effects of climate change on the birds provide a harbinger of the effects of climate change on other species, including homo sapiens. Unintentional though it may be, we are using all of the birds – and many other types of animals and plants – as canaries in our coal mine, giving us a warning of what might lie ahead for us if we don’t change the conditions that are stressing other species.

Bird lovers will be very interested in the State of the Birds report, but I hope other folks will also pay attention to it. God cares for humans and birds; if we love the God of all creation, we also will care for ourselves and the rest of creation.