• Kevin Burrell

An Open Letter to Thoughtlessly-Named Birds

Dear Thoughtlessly-Named Bird,


In your own native bird-speak, I trust that you have a respectable name that reflects your nobility and provides you with reasonable cause for a healthy self-esteem. But on that ill-fated day when a naturalist first trained his binoculars on you, jotted some field notes, and made a few sketches in his book, you were saddled with a name that included one of three very unfortunate words. Common. Lesser. Least.


Maybe—and I say this with respect—you failed to truly estimate the power of a good first impression. Perhaps you just sat there listlessly on your branch and sort of phoned it in, instead of making a good and proper show of the opportunity. But it’s more likely that the encounter had nothing to do with you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe your human “beholder” was an uncreative clod. Maybe he had used up his good ideas earlier in the expedition. Maybe he had a disagreeable breakfast that morning. For whatever reason, he looked at you that fateful morning and thought to himself, “Meh. I’ve seen better.”

And so you got branded: Common. Lesser. Least.


I recognize that I’m oversimplifying the process that went into determining your name; assuredly there was a longer conversation about you, thanks to organizations like the American Ornithological Society (AOS), committees like the North American Classification Committee (NACC), and documents like the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). But I imagine that this knowledge would make you feel worse, not better. To think that an entire scientific community decided that your name was a good idea is probably even more hurtful. So let’s simply blame the guy who first saw you—the one who first suggested you’d be best off with a demeaning name like Common. Lesser. Least.


And so, for starters, apologies are in order for you, Common Yellowthroat. Maybe your naturalist had writer's block that day, and, well, you did have a yellow throat. Actually, the initial plan in 1766 was to dub you the Maryland Yellowthroat. But then we discovered more of you in pretty much every open field on the continent, making your discovery far more—dare I say it—common (I mean no offense).


Common Loon, yours is a double dishonor. First, there is nothing common about you. Anyone who doubts the existence of a Creator should just spend thirty seconds looking at your feathers; God only took two crayons out of the box but he did about seven different things with them, from pointillism to parallel hatching to cross-shading. “Common” is a low blow. But then, adding insult to injury, the word “loon” itself has become a convenient shorthand for “lunatic”—an unfortunate happenstance, for which you can hardly be blamed.


But it could be worse. At least the word “Common” suggests a solid C-average. But there were some birds we decided to give an even lower grade. Lesser Goldfinch, I’m looking at you. Your more popular sibling got the grand title “American” and was voted Best All-Around Bird in New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington. Granted, that’s a hard family name to live up to. But “Lesser” is just rubbing it in, forcing you to live in the shadow of that overachieving prima-donna. You’re not alone, goldfinch. There are scaups, roadrunners, frigatebirds, and prairie-chickens out there who feel your pain, branded as lesser, struggling with the nagging echo of “Why can’t you be like your brother?” Nothing says “You’re not living up to expectations” like the word lesser.


Except for the word least. Now there’s a naturalist that’s moved from unimpressed blasé to outright cruel. And yet, Least Tern, some glass-half-empty scientist in a denigrating mood labeled you with that tragic moniker. You can’t help it if you’re small. Neither could your misery-loves-company compatriots the Least Flycatcher, Least Bittern, and Least Sandpiper. Judge you by your size, do we?


Lesser Goldfinch in Costa Rica © 2017 Juan Astorga Macauley Library. Lesser Yellowlegs © David Gibson, used by permission. Least Tern in NC © 2020 Jonathan Irons Macauley Library.


Candidly, who decided that the horned owl was great or that the quetzal was resplendent? We humans did, and let’s be honest, we don’t always know what we’re talking about. We call the pavement we park on a driveway and the pavement we drive on a parkway. We should not be trusted with naming things.


But my purpose in writing you, dear luckless avian friends, is not to launch a rebranding campaign (although no doubt you’d be happier with names like “Most Amazingly Outstanding Yellowthroat” or “Super-Duper Tern”). In fact, beloved commons, lessers, and leasts, my encouragement to you is not to long for a new name, but to embrace the one you have.


As it turns out, our God does spectacular things with the common, lesser, and least.


Case in point: why did God choose the nation of Israel over the surrounding nations? Perhaps the closest thing we get to an answer begins with why God didn’t choose Israel. God explains, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (Deuteronomy 7:7) The old King James Version uses that favorite ornithologists’ term: least. Israel was the least, in numbers and in prospects. So why would God “set his affection” on them? And here comes the not-quite-answer: “But it was because the Lord loved you…” (v. 8). It’s less like an answer and more like circular reasoning. “I have loved you because I have loved you.” And yet that might be the most incredible answer ever. Theologian Ed Clowney summarized that thought by saying, “God’s love cannot be explained; it can only be repeated: ‘I have loved you because I have loved you.’”


For the Christian, least should be a sort of badge of honor. “God chose the foolish [loony!?] things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak [lesser] things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly [common] things of this world and the despised [least] things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)


Take that, Great Horned Owl.


The theme of greatness through lowness reminds us humans that God does his best work in us when we’re just common clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), unexceptionally-dutiful servants (Luke 17:10), modest-yet-honored parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25), and humbly-aware sinners in need of grace (Ephesians 3:8). If there’s one thing we’re greatest at, the Apostle Paul summarized it well: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)


And Jesus lived with the same strategy of lowness, the unfathomable greatness of God stepping into the common-lesser-least of this planet to experience our common suffering, to be smugly judged as lesser by the self-appointed “greaters” of the world, and to die a death reserved for the absolute least of humanity. What happened next is anything but common.


So take cheer, Common Chiffchaffs! Live loved, Lesser Yellowlegs! God's glory gets center-stage in your lesser-ness. His grace is sufficient there. His power is perfect there. Your boast of least is his show of strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).


In birds and humans alike, God does the spectacular in the midst of the common, the lesser, and the least.