In my last post, I discussed the differences between the European and American robins, with a definite editorial slant towards the European robin. My personal preferences being arranged the way they are, I have quite a liking for the feisty little European robin, which manifests itself (now that I live in America where there aren’t any European robins) as a mild discomfort with its American counterpart. It’s not really fair to the American robin. Why should I dislike it for not being a European robin?
Last time, I made the point that we often react the same way when confronted with much more important differences. I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m acutely aware that there are many who claim the name of Christ, even among people I know personally, whose faith looks very little like my own. People who honestly believe that the Bible mandates a positional authority for men over women. People whose political leanings colour their faith in a different shade to my own. People who seem to have fundamentally different assumptions about what a good Christian is like.
We both claim to be believers and followers of Christ, but just talking with both of us on any serious subject can reveal vast differences of outlook. We have the same name as “Christians”, but we’re vastly different birds. Just like the transatlantic robins.
What can we learn, then, from the fact that the American robin is not a European robin? Can I learn to appreciate it for what it is instead of judging it for what it isn’t? Let’s find out, shall we?
What is the American robin, then, if it isn’t the feisty little destroyer of garden pests I grew up with?
It looks almost exactly the same size and shape as a European song thrush, and sure enough, its scientific name Turdus migratorius reveals it to be a member of the same thrush genus. Thrushes are good birds. The song thrush is known for its melodious voice, and its relative the blackbird is a clever mimic like the mockingbird, and I’ve heard several that liked to incorporate mobile phone ringtones and car alarm sounds into their songs.
Thrushes are also clever, then. The song thrush is intelligent enough to use a flat stone as an “anvil” to crack open snail shells.
Looking up the American robin, the first thing I note is that it’s known as a songbird. It is, in fact, apparently one of the first birds to greet the dawn with its melodious voice. Its song is more complex than the trills of the European robin, and this is what we should expect from a member of the thrush family.
American robins roost in large flocks and are vigilant for predators. The fact that they congregate points to a degree of cooperation and watching one another’s back, though this is a little anthropomorphic. Flocking behaviour and true social behaviour are not quite the same thing.
Like their more familiar European thrush counterparts, they’re clever birds. Clever enough that cowbird (a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests like the cuckoo) eggs generally get spotted and rejected. This is no mean feat; European robins are notorious for being deceived by cuckoos, despite the vast differences in size and appearance between the robins’ own chicks and the intruding cuckoo.
It’s also intelligent enough to be able to complete a fairly long migration south from Canada and the northern US to Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico and the Pacific coast.
And I have my key to understanding and appreciating this not-robin robin.
In Levi‘s “lessons from the birds” terms, the lesson from the American robin is… Wisdom.
It’s up with the first light of day, heralding the dawn. This puts me in mind of the sort of prophetic insight that understands the times and knows what should be done.
It is vigilant for predators and watches out for the flock. It can identify an egg that is an impostor and deal with the situation appropriately by rejecting it. How I wish that more believers in Christ would have this sort of discernment – to be able to recognise when something that looks real is not, but is a deception or counterfeit! And the American robin combines this with a collective consciousness that looks out not only for its own self, but for the flock as a whole! Just the way more mature believers are supposed to watch out for the flock they are a part of.
Its migratory behaviour means it needs to know the way. Migratory birds don’t need maps or compasses; they just do it. Again, this looks like the way Scriptural wisdom functions. The Holy Spirit within us, teaching us all things. Guidance when we need it, the promptings of faith, the power to understand the Scriptures…
It has a melodious voice and a song frequently described as “cheerful”. This, too, is wisdom; the wisdom to delight oneself in the Lord and be grateful for His many blessings.
And how does this wisdom come?
We study the Scriptures, either getting up early like the robin or staying up late like the owl. We walk with the wise. We ask the Lord, who gives without stinting.
Wisdom has many facets, and sometimes it can appear in unfamiliar guises. Jesus, God’s Holy Wisdom Himself, did not look or behave at all like people expected – hanging out with prostitutes and traitorous tax-gatherers, calling the most visibly righteous people around “blind guides” and “hypocrites”, dying on a Roman cross…
And to think I dismissed the American robin because it wasn’t the bird I was familiar with!