Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 03.02.20 in Articles category

Back from a birdwatching holiday in Sri Lanka where I saw Sri Lankan Junglefowl, sometime close up and confiding despite being wild birds. They are very closely related to the Red Junglefowl - reputed to be the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken. Today chickens are by far the commonest birds in the world. By 2016 their numbers had grown to more than 22,000 million and that total continues to rise. Nearly all these birds are domestic and 'captive' as they are kept enclosed within factory style buildings. The vast majority live very short and sometimes painful lives before being killed for human consumption. These birds typically exist in the crowded and dim-lit conditions of intensive, industrial style 'broiler' units for only six to eight weeks before being slaughtered, plucked and prepared for people to buy as meat. The global scale of chicken farming today is huge and it continues to grow. People's food diets across the world are changing, particularly in Asia as a consequence of urbanisation and poverty reduction. The USA, China and Brazil as a trio of countries currently produce nearly half the world's chicken meat, estimated to be 116 million metric tonnes in 2016. By my calculation that means more than 70,000,000 million birds now being born and killed annually for meat.


Chickens are the 3rd most cited kind of bird in the Bible, although the word 'chicken' does not appear in most translations of the Bible. Instead, three words are used in my bible, the New International Version, to denote this one kind of bird; the American term 'rooster' for the male bird, the 'hen' for the female and one usage of 'poultry' to signify chicken meat. Altogether there are 14 biblical references to chickens despite the different terminology used to describe them. Unusually, most of these are found in the New Testament with eleven references in the gospels.

Let's look at a quartet of these references:

Proverbs 30 verses 29-31

There are three things that are stately in their stride, four that move with stately bearing: a lion, mighty among beasts, who retreats before nothing; a strutting rooster, a he-goat, and a king secure against revolt.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs offers many observations about nature and these include some of the Sayings of Agur found in chapter 30. This comment about the 'stately bearing' of a rooster as he struts around his territory reads as a positive and perhaps surprising interpretation of its behaviour, comparing the bird to a human king or to the 'king of the beasts'. Although we don't know much about Agur himself, it seems reasonable to suppose his proverbs dated from around the same time as the rest of the book of Proverbs which was primarily written during King Solomon's reign nine centuries before Christ. If that was the case, we can deduce that roosters were known to people in Israel nearly three thousand years ago.

Mark 13 verse 35

Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back - whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.

Jesus warned his followers with these words to watch and be ready for his Second Coming. He told them that only God the Father knows when that time will be, and he used a parable about a man going away and leaving his servants in charge of his house. The owner could return at any time during the night as he explained, even when the rooster crows well before the dawn. In those days the occupying Roman troops had a change of guard at 3am - the start of the fourth watch. This was sounded by a bugle known as 'the cockcrow', presumably because people noted roosters began crowing around that hour in anticipation of the new day. Hence Jesus was warning that the owner of the house could return at any hour, even those times of night when people would expect to sleep.

Luke 22 verses 60-62

Peter replied, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about!" Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly.

One of the eight references from the gospels relating to one distressing episode in the final hours before the crucifixion. During the last supper Jesus told the twelve disciples that they would all desert him that night which Peter vehemently denied. In response Jesus predicted that Peter would thrice deny knowing him. After the arrest of Jesus later that night, the clarion call of a rooster's crow would act as an immediate and bitter reminder to Peter of his denial. We are told nothing about the bird, other than he crowed twice, presumably in quick succession. However, we are told by John in his gospel chapter 21 how Jesus in a resurrection appearance reinstated Peter in front of the other apostles by pointedly asking him three times if he loved him. Is this a model of forgiveness that the sight of a rooster can remind us about?

Matthew 23 verse 37

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."

These are some of the most poignant words that Jesus said. They form a lament about the future of Jerusalem, the most holy city for Jewish people who were required to worship God in the great temple that was built there. Jesus prophesied the city's destruction as an act of divine judgement and he expressed his sorrow at that prospect - a devastating event which took place forty years later when Roman troops destroyed the city.

Jesus in these words likened himself to a female bird. He described wanting to be like a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings. Tragically, unlike those chicks Jerusalem was unwilling to turn to him and seek his loving protection. Despite its grim context, I find this image very reassuring in its tenderness. Jesus wanted to protect the people of Jerusalem like a hen with her wings outspread over her baby young. A picture of 'God with us', not as an Almighty figure, but as a tender and caring mother bird.

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