• Kevin Burrell

The Humblest Bird in America

The bird that soars on highest wing, Builds on the ground her lowly nest; And she that doth most sweetly sing, Sings in the shade when all things rest: In lark and nightingale we see What honour hath humility. - James Montgomery, 1835

Which bird is the biggest jerk?

That was the exact question posited in a recent Washington Post article, summarizing an elaborate study on pecking order at the bird feeder. Using observations from over 30,000 birdfeeder-watching citizens like you and me, recording almost 100,000 interactions, researchers created an impressive “power rankings” list of bird aggression amongst species at bird feeders across North America. In a feeder encounter between any two birds, who will flinch first? The study predicts interactions amongst 200 species, anticipating who will assert dominance and who will (bird-proverbially) chicken out.

The birds at the top of the list likely wouldn’t surprise you. Once you remove the unlikely oddities (personally I’ve never had a Gambel’s Quail or a Black-Bellied Whistling Duck in my feeder) the reigning king of the backyard is the American Crow, to whom all but a turkey or raven will readily acquiesce. An assortment of woodpeckers also figures into the top fifteen, along with the ever-confident Northern Mockingbird and the ever-irritating Common Grackle. And if a flock of Blue Jays has ever reminded you of an unpleasant playground run-in with the school bullies, now you have scientific evidence to support your assessment.

But as I scanned this assemblage of avian antagonists, I found myself asking, “So who’s at the bottom?” What does the opposite of aggression look like? Scanning to the bottom of the top 200—beneath the bunting, junior to the junco, less than even a Lesser Goldfinch—sits the North American humility champion of the bird world: the Brown Creeper.

A bird that ranks 200th out of 200 on the bird-obnoxiousness scale might be worth a closer look for those battling their own pride, ambition, and over-assertiveness. And if you’ve had the opportunity to observe the creeper in action, its very behavior tells you that the way up is down.

The Course of the Creeper

The Brown Creeper is a tiny woodland bird that’s reminiscent of a wind-up toy. Its two short feet stay together as it hops rapidly, its head bobbing forward slightly with each quick motion. Now imagine that mechanical cadence of hop-bob-hop-bob scooting rapidly up the trunk of a tree in a spiral pathway. The creeper will stop long enough to pry an insect out of the bark, but it won’t rest for long. That wind-up toy doesn’t like to stop once it’s started.

Though a common bird, the creeper is uncommonly seen. Its back is patterned in a mottled brown that effectively camouflages it against its tree-bark background. The naturalist W.M. Tyler described the bird as “a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk.”

But the most unique aspect of the creeper’s movement, and what makes its identification unmistakable, is not how it behaves on a tree, but what it does between trees. When the creeper reaches the top of its pathway, it dives hastily downward to the base of a new tree. Never outward or upward, always downward. The pathway it writes through the forest is that of a swing-set slide: a steep ladder-ascent and then a swooping downhill back to level ground again. Each ascent starts at the bottom and returns to the bottom again.

In other words, the creeper always starts low. When it ascends, it does so only to descend again. After taking all the trouble to work its way up a tree, it could presumably hop through the upper canopy and enjoy the new elevation of its efforts. But it has chosen to approach every tree from the bottom. The way to the next tree is from the ground. The way up is down.

Humility Revolution

The virtue of humility could be (and often is) described the same way. The way up is down.

Of course, not all downward paths are paths of humility. For one, humility is not simply thinking lowly of yourself, drumming up a sort of groveling attitude. As C.S. Lewis famously said, a truly humble person “will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” The goal of humility is not self-loathing or a lack of self-esteem, and humility isn’t humiliation.

Humility also isn’t about pretending to be less capable than you actually are. The A+ student who deflects every compliment with the assertion that they’re really not that smart isn’t practicing humility but a disingenuous game of false modesty.

And lastly, humility isn’t cowardice. Taking the low ground isn’t for the sake of hiding, or justifying our silence when a courageous voice is demanded. Timidity is not a virtue. Even the creeper has been seen at times joining in with the kinglets and nuthatches in mobbing those unrighteous Blue Jays. Sometimes you gotta speak up.

So what is humility? Picturing the Brown Creeper on a tree, think of it as the pattern of going low, or—picturing him at the feeder—think of it as the deference of letting the needs of another precede our own, “valuing others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). When I imagine the conversation at the birdfeeder, I picture the creeper as the one who’s politely saying to the other birds, “No, please, you go first, I insist” or “Take my perch, friend; I don’t mind.” Of course, I realize he’s not that consciously benevolent, but then again, birds can’t talk either, so let’s just go with it.

You don’t need a Bible verse to know that humility is a good idea; generally speaking, the world admires humility and tends to cringe at any whiff of arrogance. But ancient cultures actually embraced the exact opposite. The Romans, for instance, taught the importance of humility before the gods or before the emperor, but never among equals; in the day-to-day interactions of life, self-promotion was expected, and to be humble was faux pas. The Greeks extolled the Delphic Canon as the greatest summary of the virtuous life, yet in the 147 qualities described, nothing remotely resembling humility makes the cut. If you read the greats of Greek and Roman history, they will assuredly self-attest just how great they were. Caesar Augustus pre-wrote his own obituary, encompassing the overly precise details of his achievements: battles won, buildings constructed, improvements made, even the minute details of his charitable giving. It reads like an overbearing LinkedIn profile. But heading into the first century A.D., egotism was conventional behavior; it was totally acceptable to crow about yourself.

All this is documented in John Dickson’s excellent leadership book Humilitas, along with the obvious next question: how did it become socially acceptable and even commendable to lower yourself before an equal? When did humility transfer from liability to asset on the virtue ledger? According to Dickson, historical research suggests that the change in cultural attitude towards humility was actually rather sudden, less like a gradual shift and more like a revolution. And the origin of the shift is traced back to the mid-first century, rooted in some teachings about a carpenter from Nazareth in Israel who showed his greatness through humility—and called others to emulate his example.

But what sparked the humility revolution wasn’t just the humble way Jesus lived; it was the humble way that he died. If life is about pursuing honor and avoiding shame, which every good Roman would have told you is the essence of greatness, then Jesus’ death either proved him a failure or suggested that greatness is to be found in something else. True greatness had to be redefined, and that definition had to be built around the word humility. If the virtue of humility seems commonplace and obvious to you today, remember that in the historical moment of the New Testament it was absolutely counter-cultural. The simple exhortation of “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) slew the pseudo-virtue of arrogance.

Descend to Reascend

We are probably far more inspired by the thought that those who hope in the Lord will soar on wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31) than that they will skulk about on tree trunks like creepers. The creeper image doesn’t have quite the same strength-renewing vision, does it? And yet we cannot forget that the victorious image of soaring eagles came through the humble downward direction of a cross. In that Philippians passage—perhaps the earliest written evidence of the humility revolution—we read about an every-knee-bowed exaltation, but only after a sevenfold condescension, from God... to surrender... to servant... to human likeness... to ordinary humanity... to death... to cross. Referencing C.S. Lewis again:

“In the Christian story God descends to reascend… He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.”

The way up is down. We soar like eagles because Jesus stooped low like a Brown Creeper.

And so we emulate our Savior’s example by putting others first. More than that, we rely on our Savior’s empowering to die to self and live with an others-motivation. We’re not naturally good at this; crow-like haughtiness comes far more naturally to most of us. We probably would have fit right in about 2500 years ago, but arrogance hasn’t been culturally chic for quite a while, and thanks to the humility revolution, now down is up. Our Lord has turned our self-superiority on its head. Now every morning, every pathway the Lord sets us upon, is another opportunity to drop to the bottom of the tree.

Whatever heights you attain, whatever pathways you achieve, it starts by going low.