There are more different birds mentioned in the Bible than any other group of animals. Ancient Israelites were familiar with Palestinian birds and God frequently used them to teach spiritual truths.
Swallows, a common Palestinian bird, are known for building nests in protected places, like under the eaves of buildings. It appears that some found the Solomonic Temple suitable. A son of Korah, a priest who served in the temple one week every six months, noted a swallow had a “nest for herself, where she may lay her young” near the Temple’s altar. He envies the bird’s safe permanence in God’s house, where he can be only two weeks a year (Psalm 84: 1-4). Oh, that we would be so eager to remain in His presence.
Most birds can only carry light burdens as they fly. Many birds of prey, however, have large, broad wings permitting them to carry items that weigh as much as they do. Such lift requires much wing flapping. Eagles are strong fliers, but much of their flying does not require flapping. Many birds use large wings to glide on naturally occurring thermals (columns of rising warm air). Isaiah speaks of the strong becoming weary and fainting and then says that those who “wait upon the Lord. . . they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). The eagle conserves and renews its energy by gliding in thermals. A Christian’s energy is naturally renewed by waiting upon the Lord. As He supplies thermals for eagles, He will supply our needs to do what He has called us to do.
Israel is on a major flyway. In the autumn, huge flocks of birds from Europe and Asia migrate through Palestine to Africa for the winter. In the spring they migrate north. Birds migrate to have a constant food supply and ideal places to raise their chicks. Some estimate that over 100 different species migrate this flyway.
In Bible times people did not know the reasons for bird migration but they did know that at a specific time a particular kind of bird would invade their land and a few days later it would be gone. God asks Job, “Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the South?” Job had to admit that he had nothing to do with making it happen. Bird migration was, and still is, a God-ordained wonder.
“Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle [turtledove] and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord (Jeremiah 8:7).” The prophet uses different kinds of migrating birds to broaden his illustration. Not understanding why or what they are doing, these birds obey their God-given instinct to migrate at the right time and thereby survive. The Israelites knew and understood what God wanted them to do, but refused to do it. Is it any wonder they did not prosper?
Chickens are native to the jungles of India and do not migrate. They were domesticated for their eggs and meat. Romans spread this easily-grown bird through their empire. When introduced to Israel, the Jews prohibited chickens in Jerusalem since their droppings could contaminate sacrificial flesh, but probably more as a snub to their Roman captors. That did not stop the bird from becoming a significant part of Jewish farms and dinner tables. The bird and its ways became so familiar that Christ could use chickens in a touching illustration.
Many birds are altricial: they lay small eggs in high nests, the chicks hatch naked and blind and must receive parental care before they leave the nest. Chickens are precocial: they nest on the ground and lay large eggs. More yolk permits longer incubation. Chicks hatch with down feathers, open eyes, and can walk. The chicks soon leave the nest and follow the hen in search of food.
When danger approaches the hen clucks a certain way and her chicks run toward her. Depending on the threat, she either leads them to safety or permits them to hide under her. Barnyard fires have killed the hen, but when the flames have passed, unharmed chicks emerged from under charred wings.
These instinctual behaviors are what Jesus refers to as He laments Jewish waywardness. “O Jerusalem, . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not” (Luke 13:34). The captivities of Israel and the Roman domination they were experiencing could have been avoided if they had listened to the prophets and done what Jehovah had begged them to do. Are we any less wayward?
Permit me to paraphrase Hebrews 11. “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Elijah’s raven, Noah’s dove, the peacock, the sacrifice of pigeons, the sparrow, wren, quail and other birds God uses to accomplish His purposes and communicate with us.” Perhaps another time.