“Birds are friends when you know their names”

Below is a transcript of Mr. Kerr’s Faculty Lecture in October of 2019 on birding and the relationship between naming things and friendship. Watch video above.

For those who know me, my topic tonight will not come as much as a surprise.  I like birds and birdwatching and I can and frequently do talk about birds for an annoyingly long period of time.  And while some discussion of birds will ensue, I’m really more interested in the question as to why someone would like birds to begin with and, to put an even finer point on it, why someone would enjoy the act of birding.  A few years ago, that question was posed on a KS-State Birding forum to which I subscribe, why do people enjoy birdwatching? Why bird? There were a variety of answers that came in: the love of being outdoors, it’s peaceful, birds are pretty, etc.  These all have merit but I don’t believe they get to the bottom of it and I’ve never felt quite satisfied with the depth of those answers. And so over the last several years, and frequently within the context of our pedagogical approach here at St. Martin’s, I have reflected on the birds and why it is we human beings care about them and care about naming them.  I’d like to share some of those reflections with you this evening.  

I was first introduced to birding at the University of Dallas in the spring of 2003, the final semester of my Senior year.  Earlier, during the Fall term it was brought to my attention by my advisor that I had a pesky Science elective still outstanding and I would need to take one of a handful of courses to meet the requirement.  It was a procedural matter, and an inconvenient one. As an English major, one of the more demanding majors at UD, I was deeply engrossed in the culminating and advanced work of studying for comps and working on my Senior thesis, which ended up being on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  Whatever elective course I took needed to be a minimal distraction.  In considering my options, I noticed a course called Avian Ecology and connected the dots that this was the same course about birds I remembered my sister-in-law, Margaret, talking about fondly.  Avian Ecology was, I understood, a science-y way of saying birdwatching. I recall her talking about the professor being a bit of an eccentric and was given the impression that the program was more like a club than a class.  This all had the mild appeal of sounding quirky and obscure. But most importantly it sounded undemanding, which was the key criterion. How serious could a course on birdwatching actually be? I signed up.

The professor was a gruff octogenarian who got around, very slowly and painfully, with the help of a cane.  His name was Warren Pulich. He muttered under his breath continuously and seemed a bit bewildered at first to find he had once again to contend with a group of students in a classroom.  This was to be, we were told, his last class he taught. The first few classes were slow and somewhat labored as Dr. Pulich got his bearings. It seemed a bit cruel that an apparently senile old man should have to teach a class like this.  I must confess that I even added to the cruelty, something I regret to this day. I remember asking a few smart-alecy questions to break the tedium. The sort of questions I might even hear Luke Ruddy asking, such as “Dr. Pulich, what win a fight between a California Condor and a Great Horned Owl?”.  He would dismiss my questions with a wave of the hand.

A week or two in, things began to change in that class.  It turned out Dr. Pulich knew a few things about birds. I began asking more serious questions and wondered if I could stump him.  I couldn’t – his knowledge on birds was basically inexhaustible. As he began to limber up, both physically and mentally, we started taking field trips, his cane replaced by a tripod and a spotting scope.  Whatever bewilderment of the senses he betrayed in class vanished in the field. A small bird, a “dickey bird” as he called all small birds, would flit momentarily across of our peripheral field of view and seemingly without his even looking up to see it and before I could ask he would say “Carolina chickadee” or “Yellow-bellied sapsucker”.  He was like Yoda with a pair of binoculars. His attentiveness was off the charts and his mind and memory were obviously quite keen – he could instantly flip through an interior rolodex of hundreds of bird contacts to find his match in such a way that seeing and identifying happened simultaneously. He was a master and I was increasingly impressed with his mastery.  The class I had chosen as a throw-away class was becoming something of a distraction afterall, although not in the way I had originally feared.  

I started noticing the birds around me.  One day, I noticed a strikingly patterned bird in the parking lot outside my apartment.  It had a bold black bib, chestnut colored shoulders and moved with great pluck and confidence.  I searched in my field guide for quite some time and finally concluded it must be a kind of sparrow although there was no New World Sparrow in the United States that matched its unique color pattern.  The Harris’s Sparrow was close but this bird was clearly smaller than a Harris’s Sparrow. I was stumped. That I was stumped was no shame in one sense as this sparrow, it turns out, is an old world sparrow and was buried deep in the back of my field guide.  But in another sense it was not at all a positive referendum on my own attentiveness because as it turned out this bird happened to be the most abundant bird in the entire United States. I had seen it a thousand times – dozens of them every single day as a student a UD alone.  And that I had seen it a thousand times and yet never noticed it, bothered me. Thus began my obsession with naming birds and a close friendship with the man who introduced me to them. I kept in regular contact with Dr. Pulich until he passed away in 2009. He is missed and UD is lessened by his absence. 

During the Avian Ecology class I made the acquaintance of several birds that I had seen as a child but had not noticed or at least had not taken the care to name.  Notable among these birds were the barn swallows that roosted in the barn up there that I tried to shoot out of the air with a bow and arrow. I would draw my bow and shoot, often straight up into the air, hoping to hit one of these greatest of acrobats in flight.  They took no note of arrows. The closest thing I came to shooting was myself – turns out an arrow shot straight up in the air comes down more or less directly to where it was shot. Other birds included what my dad called snow birds, which we were strictly forbidden to shoot at.  These I later learned were the slate-colored Juncos that arrived in November and spent the cold winter merrily foraging the frozen grounds. Why these birds were to be reverenced I didn’t know and didn’t ask. That my Dad reverenced them was reason enough. Lastly, there was a bird that existed in my memory as a kind of dream – a great dark, denizen of the deep woods, a veritable Pterodactyl in flight and with a haunting cry like a primal scream of a monkey howling from the rainforest.  This of course was the Pileated woodpecker, no dream, and a majestic guardian of old-growth, riparian woods.  

The first field guide for birds I recall was a Christmas gift given to us from my Dad’s partner at the Pathology Lab, Dr. James Good.  Inside the cover was an inscription that said simply “birds are friends when you know their names.” That quote, and I suspect it was an original from Dr. Good as it bears the mark of his colloquial style, says in one profoundly wise sentence everything I wish to share with you this evening. “Birds are friends when you know their names.”  That this statement is true is indisputable in my experience. It goes like this: you notice a small bird that you cannot identify. You know plenty about what it isn’t. It’s not a bird of prey, it’s not a duck, it’s not a penguin. That’s a start, but it’s only a start. You can get to know some positive things about it: it’s song, what it eats, the qualities of its movement, whether it be bold or retiring.  And yet, a shroud of mystery will continue to surround this bird and there will be a fundamental gap between you and it, an essential and seemingly infinite distance in your relationship that I contend will only be bridged by one thing: learning its name.  

The question is why is this?  Why is a name so important? And how does it open the door to friendship?

I’d like to offer a few reflections then on the aforementioned inscription (birds are friends when you know their name) and in particular the three nouns contained therein: birds, friends and names.  I also hope to tie these reflections in to one of our foundational commitments here at St. Martin’s Academy, namely our commitment to developing attentiveness.

Let’s begin then with the matter of names and naming things.  What is in a name? In Genesis, the first activity we see Adam engaged in is naming: “And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.”  Interesting that God did not introduce Adam to the animals and tell him their names. Clearly God was giving Adam an authority and an opportunity here and it is worth pausing a moment to consider why.  

I would propose at least two reasons for this, no doubt there are more, and both have to do with Man’s special place within Creation.

First, naming does correspond with authority and clearly man’s dominion and his position as steward of Paradise is confirmed in his naming of the beasts.  Parents give their children names. And yet there are things in Creation we are not to name precisely because we don’t have the authority to do so. Our guardian angels come to mind.  There is even a pious tradition, expressed rather poetically by Bob Dylan in his song Man Gave Names to All the Animals, that Adam either failed to name the Serpent or that the Serpent, who was “more subtle than any of the beasts”, somehow eluded being named at least until he was able to do his subversive work.    

The second reason and more directly related to this evening’s topic, has to do with how the act of naming defines the most basic parameters of a relationship.  Naming establishes an “I” and a “you”. An observer, and an observed. Perhaps talk about why we give our names when we introduce ourselves. 

Pope Benedict XVI says:

We have to be clear about what a name actually is.  We could put it very simply by saying that the name creates the possibility of address or invocation.  It establishes relationship. When Adam names the animals, what this means is not that he indicates their essential natures, but that he fits them into his human world, puts them within reach of his call.

Let’s note briefly here that naming something is not the same as defining it.  Pope Benedict is clear that man’s business in naming is not to give the beasts their natures, those are already given by God, but rather to establish a connection to those natures – a bridge, as it were.  

Stratford Caldecott, in his book Beauty in the Word (an instrumental book in the articulation of our four pedagogical commitments here at St. Martin’s) says that naming is actually the key move in language itself:

The archetypal moment of language is that of naming, which overcomes the gap between the self who names and thing that is named.  It is this that enables us to inhabit the world in a completely new way. And behind all naming, all invocation and evocation…lies the possibility of transcendence — the “real presence” of an Other beyond all others, an Other who is calling us to discover or create meaning in the world.  The act of speaking…is a ‘wager on transcendence.’

In this sense, Adam’s first act of naming not only positions him properly within the natural world but also indicates an additional awakening to the idea and existence of God Himself.  If we read Genesis literally, then we suppose that God spoke audibly to Adam and literally gave him a set of directions beginning with this naming matter. Adam would presumably have been introduced to God at this point through direct contact.  And perhaps that is what happened but one could also well see how God’s gift to man of his rational nature with his capacity for self-reflection and for wonder carried within it the divine command , the impulse, to name, and to see in articulating the presence of the created thing the mark of the Creator himself.  This would especially be so before the darkening of the intellect caused by original sin. 

This also touches upon a theme that the Sophomore class may recall from our visit to Clearcreek Abbey last year in which Fr. Morey observed that Man, as the apex of Creation is also the synthesis of all creation: with the basic elements of earth, water, fire and air he shares solidity, fluidity, movement and heat.  With the plants he shares the basic processes of self-directed growth, with the animals he shares locomotion and the senses. And with the angels he shares rationality. He is part rock, he is part vegetable, he is part animal and he is part angel.   He therefore represents all of Creation, and is indeed God’s perfectly chosen and uniquely equipped spokesman, or mediator.  Recall that Fr. Morey also suggested that this is in some mysterious way at the heart of Liturgy, in which Man returns right praise for the gift of existence itself to God on behalf of all of His Creation.  He speaks on behalf of all the universe (most of which is dumb in the sense that it can’t speak). And as spokesman for the beasts, his first act is to speak their names on their behalf.

Stratford Caldecott, once again:

“Made in God’s image we are also an image of the whole world.  The other creatures reflect the same reality but more partially, in a fragmented way.  It is man who puts the pieces together, who sees how they belong and where they should go.  In the boy who goes out in the fields to spot the different kinds of birds, or collects the names and numbers of trains passing a certain platform, or collects stamps, lovingly pasting them into an album according to country of origin, we see the echo of this universal mission still continuing.”

Rewind almost 20 years ago to Dr. Pulich’s Avian Ecology class.  I’m certain my own love for birds and birding wasn’t merely the result of an admiration for Dr. Pulich and what could be labeled as an idiosyncratic hobby.  Rather, I think it was enkindled by something like what Caldecott describes above. Notice that his example references a “boy”, that is, someone in their youth.  This child-like delight in naming things is really the key. Imagine Adam, the first child of creation, waking up and then being presented with a gift to unwrap.  The greatest and original birthday gift in all of salvation history – Creation itself. How does he unwrap this gift? By naming it. Naming unwraps the gift!  How beautifully simple and enjoyable.  In my own case, as an English major I had spent a couple of years having rather esoteric and “Meta” conversations that frequently related to different forms of literary criticism.  These could be fascinating conversations and I had several wonderful professors. But I recall frustration because we often seemed to be stuck at a level several layers removed from reality, so far removed sometimes that such thing as an objective reality itself was clearly irrelevant.  Contrast that with the simple, child-like act of pointing at a bird and saying “what’s that?” and then learning its name. A humble act of unwrapping a little gift. The most basic and direct knowledge. That’s real and satisfying.

Let us leave off naming for now and consider the particular subject matter of the evening: birds themselves.  It is here that I probably have the least to say, honestly. It’s a just a bit more subjective at this point, why one might favor birds, and not say, rocks, or insects or ant-eaters.  I don’t know exactly why but if pressed I would offer at least two points in my case for birds:

  • The first and I think the best argument is simply that birds are beautiful.  Is there anything more exquisitely brushed by color than the Painted Bunting?  What sound this side of many-eyed Seraphim could compare in sweetness to the warm, liquidy warble of the Baltimore Oriole in Spring?  What majestic grace of balance and twitch of muscle can conquer the wind itself, playing with it as a game? On this last point, let us hear the words of Konrad Lorenz in King’s Solomon Ring, speaking of the homely Jackdaw:

Look what they do with the wind!  At first sight, you, poor human being, think that the storm is playing with the birds, like a cat with a mouse, but soon you see, with astonishment, that it is the fury of the elements that here plays the role of the mouse and that the jackdaws are treating the storm exactly as the cat its unfortunate victim.  Nearly, but only nearly, do they give the storm its head, let it throw them high, high into the heavens, till they seem to fall upwards, then, with a casual flip of a wing, they turn themselves over, open their pinions for a fraction of a second from below against the wind, and dive – with an acceleration far greater than that of a falling stone – into the depths below.  Another tiny jerk of the wing and they return to their normal position and, on close-reefed sails, shoot away with breathless speed into the teeth of the gale, hundreds of yards to the west: this all playfully and without effort. Sovereign control over the power of the elements, intoxicating triumph of the living organism over the pitiless strength of the inorganic!

Birds astonish and delight us with their beauty.

  • The second and more prosaic point in my advocacy for birds is that they are common, widespread and therefore readily accessible.  This might sound like a strike against them but I assure you it a point-in-favor not to be underestimated. For example, it is difficult to enjoy the particular virtues of ant-eaters in Southeast Kansas for the obvious point that we don’t have any.  That’s an easy one, that’s me picking on ant-eaters. Insects are small and dormant for an entire season. They are also alien somehow, perhaps tied up in the Fall itself, and can even be repulsive.  Reptiles and amphibians also go dormant, at least around here, and tend to be secretive and largely stationary. Among reptiles, the snake fascinates but there are good reasons to be cautious about them.  Wild mammals are generally terrified of people and are therefore difficult to observe. Contrast this with birds, who can be seen almost any time of day, any day of the year in every back-yard on every continent in the world.  Particularly with the advent of binoculars in the early 19th century, the life of birds is an open book to be enjoyed at our leisure from a cozy nook at the window-sill.

The closest critter in the animal kingdom in terms of brilliance, grace and power of motion, and  diversity in splendor is probably…the fish. The difficulty as described above is one of accessibility with the specialized equipment it takes to submerge yourself for viewing or bring an aquarium into your home.

Again, all this gets to be a bit subjective and if, like J. Henri Fabre, you prefer insects, you’ll get no argument from me.  And frankly, an argument misses the point, as if we were engaged in a zero sum game. Enjoying birds and enjoying insects is not an either or proposition.  Although if you really, really like rocks, I do have to wonder about your personal life.  

All of creation, and birds perhaps especially, give us an opportunity to directly address one of the four key pedagogical commitments here at St. Martin’s Academy: to develop attentiveness.  

What do we mean by attentiveness and why should we care?  Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, conducts an interview with a client who is shocked by the reach of the great detective’s observational powers.  Holmes replies – “I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.” This distinction between seeing and noticing contrasts on the one hand a largely passive form of sensation and on the other an intensely active engagement that includes both the senses and the mind.  The art of “noticing” is a lost art indeed and the consequences of letting atrophy the integrated musculature of eye, memory, imagination and will that “noticing” requires is not without its consequences.  

Josef Pieper, in an essay aptly called “Learning How to See Again” suggests that in our “capacity to perceive the visible world…there exists a limit below which human nature itself is threatened, and the very integrity of human existence is directly endangered.”  Pieper was writing in the early 1950s and was observing a world he believed to be already dipping below that threshold amidst the din and visual noise of and increasingly industrialized and technocratic society. “I am writing this on my return from Canada, aboard a ship sailing from New York to Rotterdam.  At table I had mentioned those magnificent fluorescent sea creatures whirled up to the surface by the hundreds in our ship’s bow wake. The next day it was casually mentioned that “last night there was nothing to be seen.” Indeed, for nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to the darkness”.  

If Pieper was right almost 70 years ago, what is our condition today where the visual noise created by screens is beyond anything that Pieper could comprehend?  We have descended so far that now that not only are we not at the level of Piepers fellow passengers on the boat, we’re not even on the boat anymore and we may not even be at the level of sea creatures themselves!  According to recent studies, the average attention span of a 16 year old male is now less than that of a gold-fish (which is around 5 seconds).

That sounds dire but again, one could ask, so what?  We could simply say that our attention spans have declined because technology has permitted it.  We can now safely outsource our attention to Google’s algorithms which can sort through reality for us.  

The chief difficulty in all of this, is that as far as I can tell, you cannot successfully outsource prayer.  This sounds absurd because it of course but I actually think we’ve tried – look at the number of apps on phones having to do with scripture, spiritual reading programs and the like.  Fundamentally, prayer requires attentiveness – a sustained focus on something or Someone outside of yourself. Is it any wonder that prayer is found difficult when our capacity to attend to something, anything is measured today in mere seconds?

Back to our man Stratford Caldecott: 

If attention to the child is the key to the teacher’s success, it is the child’s own quality of attention that is the key to the learning process.  Why? Because prayer consists of attention, and all worldly study is really a stretching of the soul towards prayer. Making known to the student the special way of “waiting on truth” in every problem…is the first duty of the teacher.  For this makes it an exercise in “waiting on God”, which God will one day reward with tenderness. Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.

This returns us to the particular pedagogical opportunity afforded by birding here at St. Martin’s.  For our 9th graders in Natural History, you have your sit spots – a quiet spot for observation where you are building some basic habits of noticing what you see, as Sherlock Holmes would say.  Birds in particular, with their vocalizations and of course their appearance, will test your abilities. Experienced birders know they may only get a fraction of a second to notice the key details of a bird before it flits out of view.  Those key details include the size and shape of its bill, the shape of the tail and its length (especially relative to its body), and of course any coloration, which could be as nuanced as the color of its feet or even the contrast between the eye and the eye-ring.  To put all of those elements together in a split second requires all of your noticing powers flexing together in one focused muscle movement.

And there is very much a sacramental element to your sit spot.  Awaiting a bird at your sit spot is not at all unlike prayer where you silently await the Dove Himself, the Holy Ghost.  Will He reveal Himself today? Perhaps, perhaps not. But we wait nonetheless, in Hope, with eyes to see and ears to hear, in patient expectation of the arrival of the Other. 

And thus we come to the heart of it all, to friendship.  Birds are friends when you know their name. I think that is why any of us care about birds, or insects, or dogs.  Human beings are meant for friendship. Period. Full Stop. Yes, Man has a special place in the Universe, serving God as Liturgist and Mediator and these are lofty and dignified titles.  But these titles pale in comparison to Friend. Our Lord says in 15:15:

I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth.  But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.  

Note the distinction our Lord makes here between being a Servant and Friend has to do with shared knowledge.  God shares knowledge of Himself through Divine Revelation in the life of our Lord and Scripture. But he also shares knowledge of Himself through the Book of Creation.  We are called to Friendship in and through Creation and every being that moves is a little gift that has been shared with us – that we are given to unwrap if we are but attentive in naming it.

I will end with two quotes, first from Stratford Caldecott:

Implicit in the act of attention is the orienting of the soul to God.  To my mind this is the essence of education, and practically the essence of Christianity itself.  The love of God is of the same substance as the love of neighbor (or I would add, love of bird or beast).  Both are attentive, based on a way of looking that requires the soul to empty itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.  This is the truth that sets us free, that turns us from servants into friends.

Finally, a prayer from St. Colum Kille or Columba, from the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland: 

“Lord, Thou art my island; in Thy bosom I rest.  Thou art the calm of the sea; in that peace I stay.  Thou art the deep waves of the shining ocean; with their eternal sound I sing.  Thou are the smooth white strand of the shore; in Thee there is no gloom. Thou are the song of the birds; in that melody is my joy.”