• Kevin Burrell

Ornitheology: The Origins of a Splendid Made-Up Word

Ornitheology. I wish I could take credit for such a fun word, but it was actually penned by the great theologian and heavyweight-champion birder John Stott, in his book The Birds, Our Teachers. Like all creation, the birds have something to say about truth, beauty, and a crazy-creative God. I'm convinced that, to remain sane and grounded on this planet, every one of us should make some sort of attentive effort to some aspect of God's creation. Stott said as much: “Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation. We ought to pursue at least one aspect of natural history.”

“Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation. We ought to pursue at least one aspect of natural history.” (John Stott)

You pick: astronomy, gardening, fungus, whatever. I chose birds, perhaps, because it seemed to be a Savior-sanctioned hobby: “Look at the birds of the air!” (Matthew 6:26)


Photo ©2020 Kevin Burrell
Indigo Bunting at Clark's Creek Nature Preserve

Birds reveal, among other things, the infinite ingenuity of God. He could certainly have decided to create one species of bird, call it 'bird,' and be done with it. Instead he overwhelms our global senses with over 10,000 different species, delighting to make both a hummingbird and a condor, both a ground dove and an emu, in one creative breath. Each species turns the prism slightly to show us a different shaft of God’s light. He makes eagles to show his majesty, passerines to sing his glory, and pelicans to show that he has an unrivaled sense of humor.


So like I said, it’s good to be creation-attentive, somewhere, for God’s sake. I didn't say you have to be an expert in the field you choose. Trust me, I know much better birders—and much better theologians too—who are far more credentialed for connecting the dots.​ But to savor God's creative wow-ness, no advanced degrees are required; you just have to be attentive.


When Jesus called us to consider the birds, none of his followers had a life list or a biology degree either, let alone a pair of binoculars. Instead, he wanted us to understand redemptive love, trusting faith, and unshakable hope, and sometimes he used our feathered friends to illustrate. Sparrows show us God’s providence (Luke 12:6-7), ravens teach us to trust (Luke 12:24), and hens show us a savior’s emotional compassion (Luke 13:34).


I’ll be trying to strike the balance between biological detail and biblical devotion, perhaps leaving both sorts of readers disappointed. But maybe somewhere between the two is the weird space best suited for the department of ornitheology.