Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe
the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord.
With eager anticipation we await the return of the birds to our neighborhoods. Our eagerness to see and hear the birds again arises, in part, from the fact that their return signifies the end of winter. As Christians, we ought to welcome the end of winter and the arrival of spring, not so much because we dislike the snow or the cold weather, but because the end of winter is a reminder to us of God’s covenant faithfulness. Jehovah promised Noah, and therefore us, that “while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). His word is sure, and therefore we go forward in great confidence as the Lord leads us through the seasons of our lives.
The return of the birds to our neighborhoods is also pleasant because in their return we see the providential hand of our God. He directs the path of each and every bird. He tells each one exactly when to go and precisely where to go. The purple martin, for example, will return to the same nesting box year after year. We marvel at the means God uses to bring about these fascinating journeys. It is a wonder of creation. Bird migration provides an opportunity to praise God and to have confirmed in our hearts that with surety this is the wonder work of the sovereign Creator.
Each spring, on March 19, swarms of swallows descend upon the town of San Juan Capistrano, California. So regular is the swallows’ return that the town has a special parade to celebrate it. The swallows leave San Juan Capistrano again on October 23 and travel the 6,000-mile trek to their wintering grounds in Goya, Argentina, a distance equivalent to a trip back and forth across the continental USA! Reach for your globe and see for yourself the immense distances these birds travel.
In another part of the world, across the Atlantic Ocean, the white stork makes a lengthy trip each year to Africa and returns in the summer to breed in Europe. It flies over land because it prefers to ride on the updrafts or the thermals (rising masses of warm air), which develop over land and not over the ocean. The ruby-throated hummingbird also makes an impressive migration. Native to the mid-western states of America, the ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate in autumn to the warmer climates of Mexico. They cross the Gulf of Mexico—a 500-mile trek—without stopping. The champion bird migration, however, belongs to the Arctic tern, which flies from pole to pole—a round trip of approximately 25,000 miles.
Bird migration is fascinating. It can mean thousands of miles of journey, an eventual return to the exact same nesting place, and an almost-to-the-day arrival or departure time. Scientists have been most enthralled by these migration patterns and have spent a good deal of time researching and studying bird migration. To date, however, they have studied only a few species of birds, and among these they have discovered already a variety of techniques used by the birds to navigate during their migrations. Further studies might very well reveal that other species of birds use entirely different techniques. Clearly, much more remains to be learned about bird migration.
Some studies indicate that birds use a combination of their circadian rhythm (an internal clock of sorts) and a biological compass to find their way. The internal clock, like the internal clock in other animals, as well as in humans, is governed by specific hormones. In humans, for example, the hormone melatonin is secreted in different levels according to the amount of sunlight present. When the sun sets, more melatonin is secreted, which brings about a lowering of body temperature and a “sleepy” effect. At sunrise the body produces less melatonin, increasing body temperature, making one more active, alert, and ready to greet the day. As one hormone affects the sleep cycle, so also many other hormones are active in the body to regulate a variety of other bodily functions. Birds, too, have hormones—hormones that provide it with a sense of time. When this hormonally-driven internal clock functions in conjunction with information about the position of the sun or of the stars, the bird is able to determine its geographical location.
Other studies indicate that birds use their keen senses to help navigate their migratory path. Birds have incredible vision. This is in part due to the number of light receptors (rods and cones) on the retina. The more receptors there are on the retina, the keener the eyesight. Humans have approximately 200,000 receptors per sq. mm, while a common sparrow has approximately 400,000 receptors per sq. mm. With this keen eyesight, birds can discern tiny landmarks from altitudes of hundreds of feet. By means of these landmarks birds are able to direct their path and make it to their destination.
Birds also seem to pick up information about their path from sound waves. Birds are sensitive to sound waves in the infrasonic range. (Infrasonic sounds are in a range of sounds below human hearing ability. Some sounds of nature, like the sounds of an earthquake, cannot be heard by humans, but only felt as tremors.) Mountain ranges are thought to emit vibrations in the infrasonic sound range, which a bird can hear. Thus, a bird hears where mountains are even when they may not be seen.
Finally, birds have a strong sense of smell. The pigeon, for example, creates an “odor map” in its brain, based on the various odors and locations it encounters. Then, when various odors are carried in the wind, the pigeon is able to navigate its way back home.
Finally, more recent studies are showing that some birds are able to navigate according to the magnetic field of the earth. New research seems to indicate that a clump of magnetic minerals found in the forefront of a bird’s head acts as a magnetic compass—directing the bird. Although this has not been proven, it is hypothesized as a contributing factor in a bird’s navigational ability. This is based on scientific findings, as reported in a recent journal article:
In a 2007 article in the German journal Naturwissenschaften scientists announced that they’d found tiny iron oxide crystals in the skin lining of the upper beak of homing pigeons, laid out in a three-dimensional pattern in a way that the birds might be able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field independent of their motion and posture, and thus identify their geographical position (www.backyardnature.net/birdnavi.htm).
Whatever means or combination of means God uses to direct a bird to its migratory home, we know and believe that it is by the hand of God that the birds are directed to their migration location. While the world maintains that these fascinating means have evolved over millions of years, we confess that God created birds with these navigational abilities and continues to govern and uphold them by His providential hand, so that the birds are able to accomplish their amazing migratory travels. That it is God Himself who governs the migratory and the navigatory ability of birds is clearly implied in His questioning of Job: “Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?”(Job 39:26; emphasis mine). It is by God’s wisdom that birds fly and migrate. All glory and honor belongs to Him alone, the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth.
Two key passages relating to bird migration areJeremiah 8:7 (“Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord”), and, as mentioned previously, Job 39:26 (“Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?”). InJeremiah 8, God calls to Israel’s attention their slowness of heart to learn from His judgments. They ignore the warning of God about failing to heed His commandments. John Calvin writes:
By saying “my people,” the Prophet no doubt intended more clearly to set forth their wickedness. For, as I have before said, such blindness in heathens would not have been so strange; but as they were the holy and peculiar people of God, it was far more shameful and monstrous that they knew not his judgment (Commentary on Jeremiah).
In commenting on this passage, both Matthew Henry and John Calvin refer to Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees, who could predict the coming weather on the basis of the external signs in the sky, yet could not discern the signs of the times. From this perspective, we are taught much by the migrating birds. The migrating birds obey God’s commands and follow His decree to migrate. They are able to discern the signs God places around them that it is time to migrate, and they follow the path God has for them to go in their migration. How can they do otherwise? “But my people know not the judgment of the Lord.”
Sometimes the church, like Israel of old, has departed so far and fallen into such grievous sin, that it is unable to discern the clear judgments of God. Such is the depths of depravity that, apart from the grace of God, we, by nature, would become so hardened in sin that we would be unable to discern the judgments of God. The warning is clear. Let us pray for grace that we may see the folly of our sins. As the birds recognize God’s calling to migrate, may we recognize the judgments of our merciful God and turn from our sins.
The passage in Job 39 reveals to us also the truth that God is God. He providentially governs and directs all things according to His sovereign will and good pleasure. God reminds Job that the birds fly and migrate, not because of Job’s power or wisdom, but because of His wisdom and power. As we see the songbirds return and the flocks of Canada geese soaring overhead, may our thoughts be lifted up on high to the greatness of our God.
God is to be highly exalted for His marvelous work in the creation—His work of guiding birds in their migration. This humbles us. We are truly nothing compared to Him. In addition, by faith we acknowledge that birds migrate, not as a result of some evolutionary process, nor because of some naturalistic law, but rather because of God’s providential decree. The world quickly and foolishly attributes the migratory ability of the birds to some evolutionary process. By the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and by use of the spectacles of Scripture we see the evolutionists’ folly in their attempt to discredit the mighty and wondrous work of our Creator God, while we humbly recognize bird migration as the work of the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth.
Honor and glory belong to God alone for His creation of the birds with their special characteristics, and for His providence, by which He guides and directs them to and from their migration homes. God, as the covenant God, does not leave or forsake His creation—for the creation also belongs to the covenant. “And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth” (Gen. 9:9-10). This includes the birds of the air. By His providence, God guides them, as it were by His hand, so that they arrive at precisely the same nesting place as last year, or pass through the very same town on the very same date as last year. Jehovah tells the birds to go—either by means of hormonal changes in their body or by the changing of the weather or by some other means. Bird migration is of the Lord. He is Lord of all. Even the birds obey His command and His law for them.
As much as the evolutionist tries to maintain that these migration feats simply occur by “natural means,” we confess that God, in His sovereign good pleasure, is constantly active in His creation, and guides and directs all things to the end for which He created them. And that end is the glory of His most holy name! His glory is manifested, not only in that the marvelous feat of bird migration is accomplished by His effectual commands, but ultimately in that the bird migration causes us to consider His great care for us. That is the great and comforting doctrine of providence: if the birds of the air are provided for by God, how much more are we, the kings of creation?