A Rev. Bill & Frances Wood Sermon – Listen: The Birds Are Singing

[Play Dipper song]

John Muir wrote:

“The water ouzel, in his rocky home amid foaming waters … How romantic and beautiful is the life of this brave little singer on the wild mountain streams, building his round bossy nest of moss by the side of a rapid or fall, where it is sprinkled and kept fresh and green by the spray!  No wonder he sings well, since all the air about him is music; every breath he draws is part of a song, and he gets his first music lessons before he is born; for the eggs vibrate in time with the tones of the waterfalls.  Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong — the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal,  And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose?  Go see him and love him, and through him as through a window look into Nature’s warm heart.”

Rev. Bill:

           It is now mid-March, there is a budding going on all around us and the spring migration of birds that have wintered down south is about to begin.  In short it is a wonderful time of year to “look into Nature’s warm heart, ” as John Muir described it

           My last sermon here we talked about racial injustice.  It was a sermon of exhortation.  I learned in theology school that sermons of exhortation need to be balanced with what are called sermons of praise.  So this morning I propose a pause to praise, to smell the roses; a pause that I hope will refresh the spirit and sooth jangled nerves and bring a balance into our souls.

Let me put this in some context.  It has been said that the primary task of religion has to do with re-connecting yourself with that from which you have become separated.  That is precisely what the etymology of the word religion tells us; it literally means re-connecting or rebinding.   So by this theory, the primary function of religion is to help us reconnect with the larger life out of which we have emerged and from which we may have become separated usually due to our egos, or business.  Yet it is that very same ego that allows us the freedom to ask:   How shall we live?  What shall we value?  What shall we serve?

Religions offer a number of pathways or systems of transcending

The self and reconnecting to the larger life; the larger wholeness of being.  Last year I offered here, evening classes on four of these  transcendent systems which seem to be alive to some extent in our UU denomination:  Mysticism, Theism, Humanism, and Naturalism.

This morning we are primarily in the realm of Naturalism, where we seek to connect to the larger wholeness of being through nature.

The essence of the Naturalist faith is the sense that even though one belongs to the human community by virtue of recent birth, one belongs even more to the larger community of Nature through a more ancient and primal birth.

The Naturalist faith locates the meaning, value, and purpose in life as being primarily centered in the Natural world.  Nature is what is ultimate.  Nature is “divine.”  Thus, in the Naturalist faith one reverences Nature.  Francis of Assisi, and Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson and Terri Tempest Willliams are prominent practitioners.  They may have combined some of the other faiths as well but they were definitely Religious Naturalists.

The Naturalist window on reality contains and promotes the long view of things.  You understand that you are connected to a larger process, connected to the Natural life of things, their comings and goings, their births and deaths, the ebb and flow.   Science has turned out to be very sympathetic to the Naturalist faith.  It is incorporated into Unitarian Universalism by our Seventh Principle: ‘Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are apart.”  Beholding the spender of Mount Constance, or the dawn song of birds, reconnects us to our source and our purpose.

And without further adieu, here is my Naturalist partner, Saint Frances of Whidbey Island.


I have brought with me a few prints of some of the water colors I have done of birds of the northwest.   I hope they express my passion, love and reverence for the subject matter.

I have also written and lectured fairly extensively about the fragile status of some species. Reading the National Audubon’s  “Status of the birds” report will simply break your heart. Species are dropping away at unimaginable rates. Birds that I’ve always thought as common everyday birds are appearing on lists of endangered, or threatened birds.

Birds like  . . .

[Play Rufous Hummingbird] Rufous Hummingbird, population down 58% .

[Play Meadowlark] The Eastern Meadowlark, population down 72%

[Play Purple Finch] Or this Purple Finch, which has shifted its territory north on average 433 miles to adjust for climate change.

I simply can’t imagine a world without those birdsongs.

The good news is that I know, deep in my heart, that when we truly love something, we will fight to save it.  My hope for this talk is to introduce you to birdsong so that you too will find a good reason to do your part to keep birdsongs ringing in our ears, floating across our gardens, filtering through our forests and bringing music to our planet.

You can’t help but have noticed that I’ve brought some birdsongs into our church this morning. [Pause and look up] I expect there are some of you sitting out there haven’t quite figured out what to do with those songs.

I invite you to take a deeper listen. When I play the songs, settle back in your seats and just absorb the unique, amazing sounds. Don’t try to learn the songs or identify the birds—I’ll help you when you need to know a bird’s name..

Feel free to enjoy the songs on any level that you feel comfortable. Some of you will simply relish in the exquisite song. Others may hear a personal message, like Bob Marley who heard “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” from three little birds. Some may find a metaphorical interpretation and others may hear a mystical or spiritual message.

Why do birds sing?

The simple answer that naturalist love to toss out it is “Sex and real estate.” Male songbirds sing to attract a mate. It’s the bird equivalent of advertising “single feathered male seeks seasonal female companion.”

Studies have shown that often the loudest male attracts the mate.

Male songbirds also sing to establish a territory (claim some real estate) for the spring breeding season. He is announcing to other males of his same species to stay away. “Hey, Dude, this is my space!” A breeding territory must include healthy habitat with food, water and shelter.

Sex and real estate explain why birds sing. Yet, it doesn’t explain why some birds sing so beautifully.

Also, there are risks involved.

It takes a slightly heavier brain to remember and repeat a complex song, thus slowing down those songsters. Another risk: every one of those 1,500 songs belted out daily announces the bird’s presence to potential predators.

I’m reminded of an afternoon in December of 2003 when Bill and I were visiting Western Ecuador. We’d been invited down to help set up the very first Christmas Bird Count in this part of Ecuador. The Christmas Bird Count is an annual winter count of all the birds seen within designated 15-mile radius circles Bill was off with the local biologists previewing where various species could be located, while I stayed back at our eco-lodge, which was perched high atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

Although much of Ecuador is lush jungle this area is a dry, dusty savannah of cactus, thorn bushes and a few scrawny lifeless trees. It was the hottest part of a very hot day, smack dab on the equator. The highest point on the bluff was the top of the palapa under which I was sitting and perched atop the palapa was a Mocking bird. There were no other birds around. Definitely no other mocking birds.

[Play Mockingbird.]

All by himself, all afternoon that Long-tail Mockingbird sang. Why was it singing? There was no potential for sex or real estate negotiating. The bird appeared to simply sing for pleasure.

Bird songs have been carefully examined to parse out the sections that say, “Sweetheart, I’m available.” As well as the parts that announce, “Dude, you’re invading my space.” But ornithologists have found that many songs also include beautiful notes, that don’t seem to add any practical function.

Let’s listen to two more bird species. These are both commonly heard in forested areas of the Cascade Mountains. First the Pacific Wren (formerly called the Winter Wren.) This is a little brown bird, which unlike some birds, for example the peacock, who can strut their stuff with eye-catching plumage, this little brown wren must get its message out through song. As you’ll hear, it does it in spades with the longest song of any North American songbird.

[Play Winter Wren ]

Amazing. That tiny wren’s song consists of nearly 100 notes.

Now let’s listen to its neighbor, the Pacific Slope Flycatcher, a plane little gray bird that also must voice its message via song.

[Play Pacific Slope Flycatcher.]

Yep, that’s it, one simple preet. If such a simple song does the trick to attract a mate and define a territory, why does the Pacific Wren or the mockingbird, bother with such long, elaborate songs?

Charles Darwin suggested that birds “have strong affections, acute perception, and a taste for the beautiful.” Particularly the phrase “a taste for the beautiful” makes some ornithologists squirm behind their binoculars. It suggests that birds sing out of a sheer enjoyment of creating beauty. These scientists would rather explain birdsong with theories about complex competition among males and the need for each species to evolve a very specific song. The jury is still out on this and maybe it always will be. What’s on a bird’s mind is harder to read, even, than the mind of my husband.

Frankly, I think we miss the point if we wait for scientists to explain away the mystery of nature.

Poets and theologians appear to have no trouble with the lack of scientific understanding as to why birds sing beautifully.

Our own Charles Hartshorne, one of the most influential Unitarian theologians of the 20th Century, originated what is now known as “process theology.” Hartshorne, an avid birdwatcher, also authored an entire book to support his thesis that birds sing not only to win mates and protect territory but also to avoid monotony and to experience the sheer pleasure of singing.  He called bird song “animal music” and the title of his book is Born to Sing:  An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song.

The 13th Century Persian poet Rumi suggests:

Birdsong brings relief
to my longing.
I am just as ecstatic as they are,
But with nothing to say.
Please universal soul, practice
Some song, or something, through me!

Are we, like Rumi, really listening? Are we listening to bird songs, not for what the birds are communicating to each other, but for what we, as curious, appreciative bystanders can learn?

We don’t have to go far to see examples of such inspiration:

St. Francis is an example from our Christian tradition. You may remember the story of Francis of Assisi returning home from war sick in both body and soul. According to the movie version, Francis is lying ill in his upstairs bedroom when he hears a bird calling. He crawls out of bed and follows the sound to the window, where he sees a small sparrow perched outside on the red tile roof. Almost in a trance, Francis crawls out the window along the roof ridge following the bird.  Then comes the moment of epiphany, Francis reaches out his arm and the sparrow lands in his palm.

That moment completely alters the direction of his life. After a time his body heals, but his perception of the world around him never returns to his former self. He explores the fields around Assisi, connects with the birds, trees, sun and moon. And goes on to begin a religious movement.

And from the Native American tradition the story of Smowhala, chief of the Mattawa people who lived along the Columbia not far from here.  He journeyed into nature to ask the deep questions of how to best lead his tribe as they confronted the demands of the white men.   It was the Bullocks Oriole that whispered messages to him that he interpreted to mean:  “Resist; Don’t sign their treaties.”   Does it say anything to you? I invite you to take a deeper listen.

[Play Bullocks Oriole.]

You may have noticed the Bradford Torrey quote on the cover of your Order of Service. It’s that quote that inspired this talk.

Bradford Torrey is best known for editing the works of Henry David Thoreau including the book Waldon and the 14 Volumes of Thoreau’s journals. Torrey was also a very prolific nature writer along the vein of John Burroughs and John Muir.

I discovered Bradford Torrey in the recently published book Why Birds Sing by Davis Rothenberg. Let me read the beginning of the paragraph from which I pulled the quote.

“In Birds in the Bush (1893) naturalist Bradford Torrey confronts the first robin of spring engaged in song, perched in a leafless tree for all to see.  . . . Torrey knew that some birds learned their song while others were born with the ability to sing. He also knew that knowing this doesn’t shed much light on the fundamental question. [Why birds sing.] . . . He continued as most of us do, to somehow admire birds ability to provide the world with joyous song throughout the day, even though there is so much else they must do to survive. And not least, “possibly their habit of saluting the rising and setting sun might be the first glimmerings of original religion.”

It’s the last line that bears repeating,

Possibly [the bird’s] habit of saluting the rising and setting sun might be the first glimmerings of original religion.”

Perhaps before we humans got tangled up in the written word we based our religion on inspiration from nature and particularly birdsong.

Perhaps for those of us, those of us that even today can’t hear the voice of God calling from on high as witnessed by Moses, David and Isiah.

Perhaps for those of us who, no matter how hard we listen, can’t make out the “still small voice” from within as taught by our Buddhists brothers and sister, Thomas Merton and others.

Perhaps for those of us who don’t hear god, or spirit in those ways. We can hear his message through birdsong. St. Francis did. Smowhala did. Rumi did.

Let us join these listeners. Let us join these deep listeners and find our inspiration, perhaps even the origins of religion, in bird song.

Let us pay attention to our glorious planet. For that which we love we will surly save.

[Play dawn song.]