Reflections on a Lenten Wildlife Series

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

April 11, 2023

Audio of “Reflections on a Lenten Wildlife Series”

From All About Birds, the Cornell Lab at

Serenade of the Song Sparrow

Outside my small cabin

hidden among the birch and pines

on a northern Minnesota bluff

a song sparrow opens the dawn

with the first of an all-day serenade.

Cheerful and clear it awakens

not only my sleepy eyes

but my drowsy heart

dulled with its endless effort

to meet the ego’s requirements.

Long into the afternoon

and through the last layers of sunset

this tiny creature

sings, sings, sings,

sings of what I do not know,

perhaps simply for the bliss

of being alive in this lovely land.

A happy song wrapped in the joy

I often fail to notice

amid my self-created burdens.

When I leave this holy place

will the chirpy cadence of the song sparrow

stay with me?

Will it turn me toward the serenade of joy

that is only a breath away? [1] — Joyce Rupp

Happy Easter, friends! What a journey this has been, traveling the Lenten road with you. I have enjoyed sharing devotions and some Sunday messages, inspired by Scripture and wildlife watching, mostly in my immediate environment. Thank you for your kind support of this series!

A Male Downy Woodpecker, Photo by Jim Crawford

You surprised me with your passionate interest in our wild neighbors. I have received wonderful gifts to encourage my pursuit of caring for Nature—subscriptions to Birds and Blooms and perennials for my garden. One of our artistic members painted a “Life Is Better in the Garden” sign with a chickadee, perhaps remembering my devotion of the same name! She made bird feeders out of old teacups and spoons. I have them hanging in my kitchen because they are too pretty to hang outside—and may get destroyed by the squirrels and grackles.

Another member, within minutes of my posting the devotion, “Chickens at the Post Office!” sent me an email telling me that her husband keeps 10 chickens. And did we want a dozen fresh eggs? Of course we did!

I count the many conversations with members who shared about their love of God’s creatures in the wild among the gifts that I have received. I am not alone in my purchase of 5 types of wild bird food and a variety of feeders so that I can see the beauty of Creation up close. I am not the only one who rejoices over sightings of colorful woodpeckers, such as the Red-Bellied, Northern Flickers, and Downys. I am not the only one who struggles with bully birds and the voracious eating habits and acrobatics of squirrels, who easily outsmart the “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker photo by Sonya Cole, used with permission

When I explained my desires for this project with my seminary professor last January, I recall telling him that I wanted to experience wonder and joy in God’s Creation to help strengthen me throughout the winter season, when I would be recovering from thyroid surgery and getting used to the new medications. I also desired to stir joy in my sisters and brothers in the faith, who may be struggling, at times, with the grey and darkness of the season. I hoped that we would see glimpses of God in the wonder and beauty of Nature—and grow to know one another better, especially since I am still the “new pastor” at First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown.

Our disconnection from the natural world was something we discussed and read about in our Doctor of Ministry seminar in January. And I, who spend most of my life inside, was made aware of my diminishing connection with the Wonder of God in the world around me. We read from more than 25 books by women and men, offering a diversity of views and global perspectives. Our reading sparked interesting conversation about our “anthropocentrism” or human-centered thinking and increasingly broken relationship with the Creation that God also loves—just as the Lord loves all human beings.

My final class assignment is now due, and yet I feel that my project is “unfinished.” There’s more to see, know, learn, and experience of the Wonder of God in the Natural world around me. But more than that, I have come to realize things about myself that need changing. And I have begun to notice subtle and not so subtle changes in my attitudes and feelings, since I began to stop and watch the wildlife around me, listening for the Lord to speak through Creation.

Strong feelings and new attitudes have taken me by surprise. I was struck by a feeling of terror and grief, when I saw a male Downy woodpecker lying on the deck one morning during Holy Week. His body was trembling, and his head wasn’t in view! My body started to tremble with his. I assumed that he must have crashed into the picture window and fell to the ground stunned or dying or had an altercation with a hawk. I waited and watched for a long moment—his body trembling, my body trembling. Finally, he lifted his head and turned to look all around him, like he was wondering how he got there. Then, he recovered, flying off to a favorite tree. He would be back to the suet feeders later, along with Mrs. Downy. I had an imaginary conversation with the two birds when he returned to the nest, probably a hole hammered out by larger woodpeckers. She would say, “Honey, where have you been? I was so worried about you.” And he might answer, “I have no idea what happened! But it’s good to be home.”

Northern Flicker by Jim Crawford

I didn’t count on how passionate I would become about the wellbeing of the creatures that might have been my neighbors all along, but I had never sought to watch them and think about them, let alone feed them. I had never seen a Northern Flicker or Red-Bellied anywhere, and to see these birds up close, at my own backyard suet feeders, was amazing! I read how the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers never used to come this far north and stay all year round, but because of people feeding them, their population is growing and their range is increasing.

Another thing I didn’t expect from this project was that I would become someone who listens for bird calls and songs. I always thought that was for serious birders, not for just an ordinary person like me, who happens to like birds. In the morning, when I get up, I listen out a back window to hear which birds are nearby. I listen as I fill the feeders—and smile as the sounds grow louder. I am listening now to a song sparrow off to the distance, as I write.

I have learned how to tell the difference between a Carolina Chickadee and the Black-Capped Chickadee, which look almost identical, but the first is smaller and its range isn’t as far north. The Carolina Chickadee sings a similar tune to the Black-Capped, but usually with more notes, and the notes are higher pitched. But here’s the amazing thing. If you live in an area that probably has both kinds of birds, which we do, they learn the calls and songs from each other, so you cannot tell the species apart by their sounds! Imagine that—the birds listen to each other and imitate each other, as if they are one community.

The animals learn from one other in other ways, as well. I discovered they learn from each other how to get to the seed or suet. They watch and follow! It’s not just the birds watching birds; the squirrels are watching and learning from the birds, too.

Squirrel at our feeder by Jim Crawford

A couple of days ago, the female Downy was eating suet from an upside-down suet feeder that is supposed to be squirrel and large bird “proof.” To eat from the upside-down feeder requires knowledge of where the suet is— it’s hidden from general view—and some acrobatic skills to eat upside down, clinging to the suet cage with nothing else to hold onto and gravity working against you. Chickadees and Nuthatches have no problem doing this, but this was the first time I had ever seen a Downy at that tricky feeder. I enthusiastically called Jim over to the window to see our female Downy. A few moments after the woodpecker flew off to a tree, a squirrel took her place. He or she managed to eat upside-down for a while, clinging with toenails, before falling off and getting back on several more times. It was hilarious to watch!

The other thing I didn’t predict about myself was that I would eventually find it increasingly difficult to eat meat or poultry. Dr. William Greenway writes, in Agape Ethics: Moral Realism and Love for All Life, how we have become desensitized to animal cruelty and unable to see the Face of God in the face of creatures around us. We have lost the sense of the sacredness of life. Human beings see ourselves as the top of a hierarchy of created things. We don’t worry about those lower down on the food chain. He stirred me to think about how my activities may affect others, including wildlife. Most of us don’t flinch at stepping on a cricket, spider, worm, or stinkbug, especially if they are in the house. If we find mice in the basement, we call an exterminator.

In addition to eating less meat and poultry because of my concern for the violence being done to animals and my own encouragement of it through my purchase and consumption, I have become more thoughtful, in general, about what I am eating. I have never cared that much about my diet, other than to cut back on calories when I wanted to lose weight. I have reached the conclusion that I need to change my diet and take better care of the body the Lord has given me, treat myself with the loving care that God desires for me.

It became clear to me when I realized how much money I was spending on healthy bird food, rather than buying the cheaper mixes that contain seeds and other ingredients that are bad for the birds. Yet, I was not caring about healthy food for myself! I have never been someone to read food labels with lists of unpronounceable chemicals. But now I find myself pouring out expensive coffee creamers that boast of being “sugar free” yet have ingredients that offer no nutrition and are probably harmful while they provide a sweet flavor. In fact, I have given up coffee altogether because I came to see that I like the sweetness of the harmful chemicals and dislike the coffee without it. Now, if only I could give up eating jelly beans! One day at a time.

What’s next for this “unfinished” project? Well, instead of just trying to draw wild birds to my yard through food, I would like to thoughtfully plant a garden that would attract birds, bees, and butterflies and encourage them to make their homes here through more natural means. Members of my church have offered to help me. My Birds and Blooms magazines will be a great resource.

The sun is shining brightly outside. I can hear the Black-Capped Chickadees singing their two-note song—long, short short, long short short—and the cheerful Song Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, and Nuthatches. I feel the peace of a woman with a stronger connection to her environment. It is a rare moment of quiet on this usually busy neighborhood in suburban Long Island. Soon, the air will be filled with the sounds of commuters rushing home from work in their cars, trucks, and motorcycles and the regular whistles and clangs of the Long Island Railroad. Still, I will no longer fail to notice, amidst the noise of human activities, the sights and sounds of the wildlife that I have come to know and notice and care for, just a little bit more.

This is where we live and where I am called to minister, to serve God, human beings, and the plants and creatures that are also my neighbors.

I am grateful for the grace and kindness of my congregation throughout this Lenten project. Thank you for laughing with me and not at me and encouraging me in my learning and spiritual growth. It has been wonderful sharing with you and getting to know you all better.

May God bless us with more love to give to all creatures, great and small, and lead us to take good care, better care, of ourselves, whom God also loves. Amen.

        [1] Rupp, Joyce. Prayer Seeds (p. 137). Ave Maria Press. Kindle Edition.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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