“Birdbrain” is actually more of a compliment than an insult. Ounce-for-ounce, birds have significantly more neurons in their brains than almost all mammals. The way birds migrate proves this.
Have you ever wondered why birds don’t get lost when they “head south” for the winter? Though the answer varies from species to species (e.g., pigeons can sense direction by detecting the magnetic poles of the earth, while geese follow familiar landmarks like rivers, interstates, and mountain ranges), let’s turn our proverbial binoculars to a common songbird with an uncommon talent for navigation: the Indigo Bunting.
In the 1960s, a famous ornithological study showed that these small birds use the rotating positions of the stars to guide themselves every fall and spring as they fly from the eastern United States to Central/South America and back. As chicks sitting in their mother’s nest watching day come and evening fall, young buntings memorize the pattern of the night sky, until they’re old enough to survive the long flight from Cleveland to the Caribbean. Come September, instinct kicks in and off they go for a warm winter in the Bahamas, guided by the familiar constellations of autumn.
But, research also shows that things go terribly wrong when young buntings don’t learn how to read their stars properly. In another study, ornithologists raised two different groups of buntings in two different planetariums. Group A’s planetarium projected a realistic night sky, while Group B grew up in a planetarium that featured constellations that were randomly generated and totally fictional. When the birds were released into the wild, again their instinct to fly south kicked in, but with very different results: Group A enjoyed a successful migration to the Caribbean, while poor Group B was confused and couldn’t figure out where to go.
From these studies, scientists learned how buntings are able to navigate during their migration seasons. However, the ornithologists acknowledge that an even deeper mystery remains to be comprehended: How do birds know that they need to go south in the first place? Unlike their navigational skills, their motivation for migrating isn’t something that they learn over time. Even the poorly trained Group B still tried to migrate. Their captivity rendered them incapable of navigating properly, but it couldn’t take away their primordial instinct to migrate.
Instinct is the key word here. For it’s natural instinct that makes birds want to go south in the winter. It’s not something that they choose or are taught to do. They do it because that’s what birds do; they migrate because they’re hardwired for migration.
In this respect, we human beings are similar to birds. We’re all “birdbrained,” if you will. We have instincts too, and we have to learn how to follow our instincts properly. Since we’re spiritual beings—that is, we have a rational soul—our deepest instincts are spiritual ones: We seek to know what is true and to love what is good. We can’t explain why we do this other than to say, “That’s human nature.” We’re hardwired for truth and goodness, and no one can ever take these natural inclinations away from us.
But, like buntings, our instincts need to be trained. Unless we are properly oriented, we’re likely to misperceive what’s actually true and really good, and fly off on a wild goose chase after false truth and false love. We need to be taught with the right constellations, if we want to get where our instincts direct us.
This is part of the reason why Jesus came to earth: to teach us the truth about where we need to go. The revelation of Christ is a sure constellation for us that will guide us from the harsh winter of the world into the spring that is the kingdom of heaven. As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage towards Easter, let us keep the light of Christ ever before us: He who, in the words of the Exsultet, is “the one Morning Star who never sets.”
Photo by Barth Bailey.