On a Facebook site called Hummingbirds Anonymous a member recently posted a striking photo of an adult Anna’s Hummingbird. The photo captures the iridescent facial feathers and the cascade of the gorget, the bib of brightly colored feathers right below the beak.
Inspired by the photo, the person who posted it made the comment “All Things Bright and Beautiful! The Lord God Made Them All.”
What a setup.
Backwards and forwards
What so many people fail to appreciate is that hummingbirds are part of a continuum of bird species in this world. They have morphological relationships to other birds. That is, they share vital characteristics with other species. Pick up any bird identification guide and you’ll see that hummingbirds are placed between swifts and kingfishers, both of which are enormously capable fliers in their own way.
Swifts look much like hummingbirds. They are a lot less colorful. Some look like cigars with wings. Those wings bear much the same shape as hummingbirds, only swifts can’t fly backwards. They do fly forwards at immense speeds. Swifts are also known to fly all day long plucking insect food from the air. At night many of them converge over a cave or a chimney in swirling clouds, then swoop down to perch for the night with their tiny feet clutching the surface on which they sleep.
On the other bird bookend are kingfishers, which like hummingbirds can fly in one place by hovering. This ability lets them hang over the water while fishing. They often fly to a position over the water, hover for a few seconds eyeing their prey and plunge into the water.
Living large as tiny birds
Between these two kinds of birds lie the many species of colorful hummingbirds. In America these range in size from the diminutively proportioned Lucifer Hummingbird (3.5”) all the way up to the Magnificent Hummingbird (5”). There are nearly 20 species of hummingbirds found in the United States alone. Many more types and their close relatives live in the tropics.
If we ask some simple questions as to why there aren’t even more hummingbirds in the United States we find the answer is simple. Hummingbirds depend on a certain sort of environment to survive. This is a life and death proposition. Almost every winter here in Illinois we find a variety of hummingbird visiting our region from the southwest. A bird will get attached to a hummingbird feeder and never leave when the weather gets cold. They can survive fairly well because they go into a state of torpidity overnight when the temperature drops.
Sooner or later these wayward hummingbirds are either forced to leave or die somewhere in the cold. That’s because they are not naturally adapted to surviving in such cold conditions. Many species of hummingbirds prefer the desert where it’s hot all day and cool at night. That lets them feed aggressively and then sleep it off when it cools down overnight.
If there weren’t such needs hummingbirds could exist anywhere their whims might take then. And that’s how nature works. Sometimes birds and other creatures launch off from their ideal environments for new environs. If enough of them go together and they manage to breed, a new population might form and their range expands.
But that’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s hard enough sometimes for hummingbirds to even accomplish what they need to survive. Many species launch off in flight from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and travel several hundred miles to Texas across the Gulf of Mexico. If the winds stay favorable they make it. If they don’t an entire flock can grow exhausted and perish in the water.
Tiny losses add up to big effects
One might be tempted to ask a classically moral question about such an event. How could God allow such beautiful, tiny creatures to die in such an ignominious, useless way?
Well, we’ve seen that hummingbirds have special adaptations that allow them to survive. We’ve seen that they fill a continuum in the types of birds we find in the world. We understand that hummingbirds also depend on certain environmental conditions to survive. They need the right food, and frequently. All these factors determine how and where hummingbirds are able to live. They also determine whether they live to breed again, or die as a species.
Millions of types of living things have come and gone on the planet earth. 99% of all living things that ever existed on planet earth are now extinct. They died off. God mourned none of them apparently.
Learning from mistakes
But we’ve studied those creatures and learned a few things about why animals do and don’t survive. We’ve also found extremely compelling evidence that the creatures that came before us and disappeared from the earth were connected both morphologically and genetically to the living things we find around us today. Like hummingbirds, all living things are part of a continuum. We can only see a slice of that continuum in the present, yet even that slice is massively vast and diverse. We also now know that many of the creatures we call dinosaurs bore feathers like modern day birds. We can see the patterns and shapes of those feathers in fossils. In fact birds may be nothing more than dinosaurs still alive in the present.
So the reason God allows beautiful things like hummingbirds to die in the ocean in the process of creation is that they represent the ultimately missing links in the common purpose of the Creator. That is, to continue the creative process against all other forces, God allows living things to come and go. Even our notions of “good” and “evil” fall well within this continuum. We impose these values on the processes of nature to help us understand them, but those values do not by nature define the acts and results of natural causes. They merely reflect them and our judgment of them.
As human beings we find ourselves immersed in this continuum. Even the Bible recognizes this fact, branding human beings as little more than “leaves of grass.” We are dust to dust. Part of a continuum.
Message of hope
Yet the message of hope in the Bible is that we can find meaning in life by identifying with the purpose of the creator. Our contributions to human society and this world help define what we call the Kingdom of God. Amongst humans––and as defined by the emotional states of hate and love we conceive as sentient creatures––there is a moral code.
That’s what God expects us to understand. A hummingbird is an expression of the creative force running through all things. Whatever we must do, and however we can conceive its complexity and seemingly miraculous features is our duty to understand its the best way we can. That is part of our best hope.
In fact we may not fully appreciate the creative power of God if we do not also recognize the science that so clearly outlines an apparently chaotic universe governed by physical laws. In that model we can better comprehend the free will and grace of existence that comes with it. We are related to these living things all around us in creative and moral foundation. The methods by which these living things come to exist are wondrous. Science reveals these miracles in manifold ways.
Those who blame science for undermining God fail to grasp an important point. Through evidence in all of scripture, God seems to care far less about how we got where we are in life than what we do with this life we’ve been given. We might start by showing a little more respect for creation, lest it show that much respect toward us. Because that’s how it all works.