This excerpt is the 10th chapter of The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird Watcher by John Stott.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourestthy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art!
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark, 1819)

Birds and humans have obvious characteristics which distinguish them from one another. Birds can fly; humans cannot.

Humans can make moral choices; birds cannot. Yet they have at least one thing in common: both sing! Both have vocal chords, even though ours is the larynx and theirs the syrinx.

Moreover, each bird species has its own distinctive song by which it can be recognised.

Two rather nondescript little greenish-yellow warblers — the Chiffchaff and the Willow Warbler — were originally thought to be the same species. They both nest in Europe and winter in Africa, and their look-alike plumage can deceive even experts.

But Gilbert White, the Hampshire parson and author of The Natural History of Selborne (1789), insisted that they must be distinct species because of their distinct songs. The former goes "chiff-chaff-chaffchiff" in a harsh, irregular and even erratic fashion, whereas the Willow Warbler utters a sweet cadence in a descending scale, in a minor key, and with a final flourish.

Only the tone-deaf could fail to appreciate the liquid bubbling trill of the curlew's spring song, the haunting yodel of the Great Northern Diver (Common Loon in North America), the resonant, explosive outburst of the wren ("Winter Wren" in North America), its tiny throat palpitating like a prima donna's, the melodious flutelike warbling of the male European Blackbird, or the Song Sparrow's varied repertoire of up to 25 little arias.

Of special mention is the so-called "dawn chorus," in which all the local breeding birds join in, heralding the sunrise. Viscount Grey, whom I have mentioned in an earlier chapter, used to escape from his parliamentary duties in London to Fallodon, his estate in northeast Northumberland. Though towards the end of his life his eyesight was failing, his hearing remained keen, and he loved the summer dawn chorus, which was at its best between three and four o'clock in the morning. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "this wonderful opening of the day occurs at an hour when civilised man is either in sleep or suffering from the want of it. In the first case he does not hear the singing; in the second he is in no mood to enjoy it; is, in fact, not worthy of it."

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The Romantic poets were not slow to celebrate our principal songsters. Both John Keats and William Wordsworth followed John Milton in composing an Ode to a Nightingale, whereas Wordsworth and Shelley both wrote an Ode to a Skylark.

The Eurasian Skylark is somewhat drab in appearance, but compensates by its sensational song. Although a ground-dwelling and ground-nesting bird, its real habitat is the sky. In song flight the male ascends vertically, higher and higher, until it is almost out of sight. As it hovers, head to wind, with vigorous wing beat, its song is delivered with enormous gusto. Its high-pitched, shrill, forceful warbling is sustained for up to five minutes, with apparently no pause for breath, until it parachutes down, with a final, silent drop to the ground. Poets less well-known than Wordsworth and Shelley have also tried to capture the lark's unique combination of flight and song. I think of Mary Sorrell, who came to Christ in later life, following a stroke which deprived her of speech. It was then, when her vessel was floundering and near to sinking, that (she wrote), "I found Jesus Christ treading the blue-green waves." Here is her poem about the lark:

In a grey sky / On a grey day,
A brown lark sang / Her roundelay.
With trembling voice / And quiv'ring wing,
She hovered low / To softly sing.
No sweeter song / I ever heard
Than from the throat / Of that small bird.
She trilled and trilled, / Then flew away,
Into the sky / And sunless day.

From the merchants and the poets we come to the scientists who delve into the meaning of bird song. Not that they are able to explain the songs of birds in purely functional, reductionist terms. Even when resolved to cultivate objectivity and eschew sentimentality, they cannot help conceding that birds sing for the joy of it, and for the necessary release of emotional energy.

Human speech is of course a much more sophisticated medium of communication than the wordless songs and calls of birds. Yet there are similarities between singing humans and singing birds. To begin with, the main outburst of avian song takes place in the breeding season and is associated with courtship and mating. Just so, some of the greatest human songs have always been love-songs, variations on Romeo serenading Juliet. We also resort to national anthems and patriotic songs, to express our solidarity with each other, and to pop music to encapsulate our sense of cultural identity. Joie de vivre also demands musical expression. On occasions of congratulation and celebration it is natural to break into singing "Happy birthday to you," "For he's a jolly good fellow" or "Auld lang syne."

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But the most appropriate of all occasions for singing is the public worship of Almighty God. Many people do not know how special — even unique — singing is to Christians. Temples, synagogues and mosques never resound with the exuberant praise of those who know their sins have been forgiven. The joyful song of the redeemed is heard only in Christian churches, and never with greater exultation than in Charles Wesley's hymns like "And can it be?," "Love divine, all loves excelling," "Hark! the herald angels sing" and "O for a thousand tongues to sing."

There was of course singing in the temple worship of Old Testament days, and the Psalter is full of invitations to praise God:

Come , let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him in music and song.
(Psalm 95:1, 2)

Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
(Psalm 96:1, 2)

It is also taken for granted in the New Testament letters that the singing of hymns will be a natural and spontaneous expression of Christian praise. The inevitable consequence of being filled with the Spirit, and of having the word of Christ dwell richly within us, is that we sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs," making music with gratitude in our hearts to God (Ephesians 5:18, 19; Colossians 3:16). Christian people are irrepressible in this matter. It would be impossible to stop us singing.

Further, the Book of Revelation assures us that the angels, the created universe and the completed church will finally unite in singing a new song of praise to God, affirming the unique worthiness of the Lamb to open the book of destiny and to receive all honour, glory and praise (Revelation 5). In particular, the redeemed people of God, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before God's throne, will cry out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.
(Revelation 7:9, 10)

The church has always recognized that the three highest peaks of the mountain-range of salvation are the incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection. So it is that the greatest hymnody of the church has focused on these three events and their significance. For example, "Once in royal David's city" celebrates the incarnation, "There is a green hill" the atonement, and "Jesus Christ is risen today" the resurrection.

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It is here that we part company most decisively with the birds.

Perched on some conspicuous twig, with beak lifted high and throat vibrating violently, a bird will seem to sing its head off. Scripture even says, metaphorically speaking, that it is engaged with all nature in worship:

Praise the Lord from the earth, … wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds … Let them praise the name of the Lord (Psalm 148:7, 10, 13).

But of course this is a pure anthropomorphism. Singing birds have no idea what they are doing. And we must not copy them in this. Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury saw this clearly in his Second Book of Homilies (1571). In the homily entitled "Of Common Prayer and Sacraments" he wrote that we must sing "with the reason of man, not with the chattering of birds." To be sure, he continued, "ousels and popinjays and ravens and pies and other such like birds are taught by men to prate they know not what; but to sing with understanding is given by God's holy will to the nature of man."

We cannot sing with joy and gratitude to the Lord unless we sing with understanding.

Related Elsewhere:

A review of the book accompanies this excerpt.

The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird Watcher is available at and other book retailers.

Cindy Crosby also wrote the following bird book reviews for Books & Culture:

For the Birds | What are we looking for? (March/April 2008)
Chuckleheads and Timberdoodles? | A bird book you need to add to your shelves. (March 26, 2007)

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (, a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."