The Holy Bible abounds with birds, and tales of humans interacting with birds. Quail fell from the sky two cubits deep to feed the starving Israelites in Numbers 11:31 and Exodus 16:12-13. And ravens fed Elijah during the horrific drought in 1 Kings 17:6. I had always wondered about many of these stories, though -- they seemed far more fanciful than factual.
But naturalist and prolific flora and fauna author Sally Roth has schooled me again in An Eye on the Sparrow: The Bird Lover's Bible. I had no idea that the Middle East was such a huge natural migratory bird flyway, and that thousands of quail falling from the sky is not fanciful at all. Take the massive annual quail migration from Europe and Eurasia to Africa, combined with a bad storm to blot out the stars which help the birds navigate and throw in some nasty winds... that well-timed feast during the Exodus was entirely plausible, Roth says.
As for the ravens, Roth points out that all corvids are well-known for their social behavior with each other and with humans, and that they are intelligent enough to quickly determine friend from foe. Did the raven help feed Elijah, or did they just simply trust each other and decide to share the same spring? It was, after all, the only water source around for hundreds of miles. Either way, Roth says that story makes sense too.
In An Eye on the Sparrow Roth opens up a detailed dialogue that Christians, atheists, naturalists, ornithologists and anyone interested in the natural world can all share and discuss. She covers the natural behavior of every bird that makes an appearance in the Bible in great scientific and behavioral detail, but with a friendly tone that's never preachy.
"This isn't a religious book," Roth told me. "It's a bird book."
I asked Roth what her favorite bird of the Bible was, and there's no surprise it's the sparrow (English sparrow or house sparrow, Passer Domesticus).
"Sparrows are not English, they originated in Europe and Asia but were introduced by humans all over the world because they adapt to living with us so easily," Roth told me. "Many people don't like them, though. They arrive in huge numbers and eat all your expensive bird food, they're not very colorful and they make messy nests. But I'm always in favor of the underdog, and sparrows were the only birds willing to live in the city smog of the Industrial Revolution. Sparrows can thrive almost anywhere."
As for her favorite Bible verse, Roth cites Psalm 102.6.
"I am like a pelican of the wilderness, a mournful and even hideous object, the very image of desolation."
I was never able to figure that verse out until now, despite my extensive experience with hungry pelicans following my boat on lakes and stealing live fish right off my line. It turns out that pelicans are quite at home on lakes, but if you find one in the wilderness it is having a very, very bad day.
"While my husband Matt and I were finishing up this book, we actually did come across a crashed pelican in the high mountain wilderness near our home, far from its natural habitat" Roth said. "It was a huge and magnificent bird, but seriously wounded and in a pitiful state. We were able to bring it to a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center, and we are happy to report that "mournful object" made a full recovery. It made a huge impact on our lives and on our book."
I was surprised at how many "Wow, I never knew that" moments I had during this read, and Sally Roth's extensive library of titles published through Rodale Press, Reader's Digest Books and more assures me that the research here -- both scientific and scriptural -- is rock solid. The illustrations by wildlife artist Heather Dieter Bartmann are gorgeous in both their detail and simplicity, and calligrapher Lou Bartmann's lettering gives each chapter a unique character.
An Eye on the Sparrow is a friendly, entertaining and educational book for anyone interested in birds, the Bible or just nature in general. It's a fascinating cornucopia of science, birds, religion, geography and human beings.