Skip to content

Birds that Sow, Reap and Store: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study IV

September 4, 2016

This Week’s LessonBirds that Sow, Reap and Store

This week’s topic is not a particular bird, but stems from a general comment about birds. This well-known and oft-quoted verse appears near the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, a long oration in which he offers the mass of listeners advice for living a better life.

‘Therefore I bid you put away anxious thoughts about food and drink to keep you alive, and clothes to cover your body. Surely life is more than food, the body more than clothes. Look at the birds (πετεινὰ – peteina, plural of bird) of the air; they do not sow and reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You are worth more than the birds! Is there a man of you who by anxious thought can add a foot to his height?’
Matt. 6:25-27 New English Bible

Stained glass of Jesus, birds and foxes (Glass Angel)

Stained glass of Jesus, birds and foxes
(Glass Angel)

Put into a modern context, we are being told that if we let go of our never-ending fears, we’ll fuss and fret less and be happier. Endless anxiety does not make us taller or live longer. Birds do fine without such needless fretting. We are greater than they; we can live better that we do.

The bible is full of poetic and literary devices: similes, metaphors, rhyme schemes, and repetition for emphasis are only a few. However, there are many people who interpret literally passages such as the above and who, knowing little about birds or other animals, might think they actually lead lives of perpetual ease and frolic. As with humans, birds have their own agendas; entertaining humans is very low on their list. Their lives are filled with peril; they need all their courage, wits, and a lot of luck to survive long enough to raise young of their own. 80-90% of all birds die in their first year.

To illustrate some of the survival strategies birds use, I’ve selected three species which anyone in Southern California can see without much difficulty.

Clark's Nutcracker, Aspendell, Inyo Co, CA (Joyce Waterman)

Clark’s Nutcracker, Aspendell, Inyo Co, CA (Joyce Waterman)

High in the mountains of western America, including our local San Gabriel Mountains, lives the Clark’s Nutcracker. Discovered by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition near the north fork of the Salmon River (near modern-day Kamiah, Idaho) on August 22, 1805, they were later named for him.

Eurasian Nutcracker, Manzushir Khiid, Mongolia (Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa, January 2009)

Eurasian Nutcracker, Manzushir Khiid, Mongolia
(Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa, January 2009)

The family Corvidae (Crows and allies) has 125 species, grouped into 25 genera. The three nutcracker species are in the Nucifraga genus: Eurasian (previously Spotted) N. caryocatactes, Kashmir N. multipunctata, and Clark’s N. columbiana. Kashmir Nutcracker is restricted to Pakistan and northwest India;

Kashmir Nutcracker (painting by John Gould)

Kashmir Nutcracker
(painting by John Gould, 1849)

Eurasian ranges widely from central Europe to the eastern Himalayas and far eastern Siberia, getting no closer to Judea than northern Greece; Clark’s ranges across western U.S. and Canada, from northern Baja to British Columbia and down the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico. All three species live on conifer-covered alpine slopes, ranging between 3500 ft. and tree line, usually between 10,000 and 12,000 ft.

A close relative of crows and jays, Clark’s Nutcracker is twelve inches long, a bit larger and stouter than our local California Scrub-Jay. It does not migrate, but remains resident in its alpine coniferous habitat throughout the windy, bitter cold of the mountain winters, occasionally descending to lower slopes. Trees and shrubs provide no food for it at that season, yet it survives, despite winter’s high energy demands. How it does this is quite amazing.

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark’s Nutcracker pulls a nut (Greg Bergquist, 10-15-04)

The Clark’s Nutcracker survives the winter primarily by eating pine nuts. The nuts, however, are not on the cones which may have blown away in the high velocity winds, but are safely stored in the ground. Like squirrels, nutcrackers spend the autumn extracting pine nuts from cones. Their long, pointed and stout bill is perfect for hammering on cones and plucking out nuts. But they don’t store the nuts in a few large close-at-hand caches like the squirrel. What they do is far more interesting and ecologically beneficial.

The nutcracker packs a mass of seeds into its sublingual (below the tongue) pouch and carries them, as much as ten miles, to its storage area in deep woods or on a windswept ridge. There, where the coming winter’s snow will lie less deep, it makes a hole in the soil with its sharp bill, pushes in one or more seeds, and covers the hole with soil or ground litter. More holes are made for the other seeds. Then it flies back to the ripe-seed ground to repeat the whole process. Individual nutcrackers may store 100,000 seeds in a single season, creating many tens of thousands of holes. And it remembers where the holes are. In natural and experimental situations, nutcrackers have recovered 50 to 99 percent of stored seeds. Experiments show that they remember each hole’s positions relative to local landmarks such as trees and rocks. If such landmarks are moved, say by a meddling scientist, the bird seeks for holes where they ought to be (relative to the moved landmarks) but are no longer.

Clark's Nutcracker caching nuts, Mt. Baldy, CA ("Bob" July 2013)

Clark’s Nutcracker caching nuts, Mt. Baldy, CA (“Bob” – July 2013)

Choosing areas for storage where snow will lie less deep ensures easier retrieval of the seeds. Pine nuts are nutritious, loaded with energy-packed oil, and can sustain the birds through winter. But no nutcracker retrieves all their nuts.  Some remain in the ground, sprout, and grow into new trees. Windswept, barren slopes provide young trees with more sunlight and less competition from mature trees. Thus the forest is replenished.

Juvenile Clark's Nutcracker, Colorado (Joyce Waterman)

Juvenile Clark’s Nutcracker, Colorado (Joyce Waterman)

Studies have shown that the vast coniferous forests of (pre-European occupied) western North America were created largely through the activities of squirrels, nutcrackers and several of their Jay relatives. Heavy cones and nuts do not travel far without animal transport, and nuts in unopened cones frequently fail to germinate. The trees feed the squirrels and birds, and they in turn enable the forests to spread. In a sense the nutcrackers are “sowing” the forests; this shelter and food is reaped by itself and later generations of nutcrackers.

So, when considering the Clark’s Nutcracker, we must agree that they sow the coniferous forest, reap the nuts and have their own personal “barns” of which they memorize every nook and cranny! Think about that the next time you can’t find your car keys.

Acorn Woodpeckers were everywhere. Placerita Canyon (C.Bragg 4/7/12)

An alert female Acorn Woodpecker. Placerita Canyon State Park
(Chuck Bragg 4-7-12)

The Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) ranges from southern Washington State down to the western slope of the Colombian Andes Mountains. Except for the southern populations in Central and South America, they have the unusual behavior of collecting tens of thousands of acorns and storing them in granary trees. The granary is not a large cavity containing many nuts, instead it is one – sometimes more – entire tree with tens of thousands of small holes drilled by the woodpeckers into the trunk and large limbs. Each hole takes one-third to one

Acorn Caps (Chuck Almdale 4-12-14)

Acorn Caps. Malibu Creek State Park
(Chuck Almdale 4-12-14)

woodpecker-hours to drill, and into each hole one acorn, still in its shell, is pounded. The woodpeckers gather the acorns in the fall, when they’re ripe, and store them in their granary. Throughout the winter the nuts are extracted, as needed, to feed the colony. The acorns fit tightly and are very difficult for other birds and squirrels to steal them; anyone trying will be discovered and driven off by the granary owners. A granary tree can look like Swiss cheese. Telephone poles have collapsed after years of use as a granary.

Acorn Woodpecker with acorn, CA (Joyce Waterman)

Male Acorn Woodpecker with acorn, CA
(Joyce Waterman)

A granary of 50,000 holes will take 15,000 – 50,000 hours to create – far too much time for a single bird or mated pair to create. These are multi-generational projects, begun by a single pair of birds, and continued from one generation to the next. Because acorn shells shrink while stored, they become loose in their holes and must be moved to a new hole, so new holes are constantly added. In order to create and maintain such a huge project, Acorn Woodpeckers developed several unusual breeding strategies, one of which is called helpers-at-the-nest.

Acorn Woodpecker, J. Kenney, 11/10/12

Acorn Woodpecker at her granary. Malibu Creek State Park
(Jim Kenney 11-10-12)

Unlike most species of birds, young Acorn Woodpeckers often do not leave their parents to find a mate, build their own nest and start their own families. This species does not migrate to find warmer climes and abundant food in winter. They are resident and stay in their territory throughout the winter. A well-stocked granary enables them to survive the winter but, conversely, it is very difficult for a resident pair to survive the winter without a well-stocked granary. The best way for an Acorn Woodpecker to survive and propagate is to inherit the family granary. So the young of previous years may stick around for many years, helping their parents to feed and protect this year’s crop of nestlings. This enables them to “learn the ropes,”, and be ready to take over the nest holes and granary when the parents eventually die.

Acorn Woodpecker at the nest-hole. Solstice Canyon (C.Bragg 5/11)

Male Acorn Woodpecker at the nest-hole. Solstice Canyon State Park
(Chuck Bragg 5-7-11)

Colonies can begin nesting earlier in the season when they have stored acorns. Studies have shown that colonies with a granary have larger clutches and fledge up to five times more young than colonies or pairs without granaries. Acorn Woodpeckers are great flycatchers, and during the breeding months, the chicks are fed insects, supplemented by fruit and granary acorns. As with humans, inheriting the “family farm” is a tremendous advantage. But not all breeding-age birds can wait that long.

Acorn Woodpecker trio, Reagan Ranch (C. Almdale 4/12/14)

Acorn Woodpecker trio. Malibu Creek State Park, Reagan Ranch section
(Chuck Almdale 4-12-14)

Young female helpers often lay eggs in their mother’s nest. While the dominant female is good at preventing non-family birds from “dumping” eggs into her nest, she is unable to stop her own children from doing so, and cannot pick out and eject eggs not her own. So the helpers have a second reason to hang around. Colonies may even have multiple nest holes and multiple pairs of related birds simultaneously nesting.

Acorn woodpeckers don’t “sow” but they reap and they most definitely store their crop. Their complex and variable breeding strategies have evolved around their dependence on their granaries.

Long-tailed Shrike, Ambua Lodge, Papua New Guinea highlands (Chuck Almdale, August 2008)

Long-tailed Shrike ready to swoop down on prey. Ambua Lodge, Papua New Guinea highlands (Chuck Almdale, August 2008)

Not all food stored by birds consists of nuts and grain. Shrikes store meat. The Shrike family Laniidae, distributed worldwide excepting Australia and South America, has thirty-two species. All feed primarily with a sit-and-wait method: perch upright on a bare twig or post or wire watching for movement, fly out to capture the prey, bring it back to eat it or store it in the “larder.” Prey can be large insects and small birds, reptiles or mammals, but they are known to kill prey 3-5 times as large as their own body mass. Two examples from Southern Grey Shrike larders: In India, one contained a 10-inch saw-scaled viper; in Israel, another held both a fat Sand Rat and a dead Southern Grey Shrike, an unwary intruder.

Great Grey Shrike and his impaled mouse.

Great Grey Shrike and his impaled mouse.
(Aves et ales Animales 6-Mar-2015)

Their larder consists of thorns, sharp twigs or barbed wire, upon which they impale their dead prey; busy shrike may have many corpses thus impaled, for which habit they are also colloquially called “butcher birds.”

Loggerhead Shrike sits-and-waits on his bare twig perch. Malibu Creek State Park (Jim Kenney 11-20-12)

Loggerhead Shrike sits-and-waits on his bare twig perch. Malibu Creek State Park
(Jim Kenney 11-20-12)

Our local Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius Ludovicianus) is a 12-inch long passerine, looking much like a Mockingbird but with a thicker, hooked black bill. Lacking the talons of a true raptor, it kills its prey by crushing it in its bill or bashing it to death. They have figured out how to eat poisonous Monarch Butterflies: impale them on a thorn for up to three days until the poison breaks down. Shrikes, endemic to North America, have recently suffered an enormous population decline  of 76% between 1966 and 2015, primarily due to eating pesticide-laden prey, it is suspected.

Clark’s Nutcracker, Acorn Woodpecker and Loggerhead Shrike – three local examples of the world’s hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of birds that sow or reap or store their food.

Bible Factoid #4 – Whence Jesus?  (Ἰησοῦς –Ihsous)

Since we just finished nitpicking one of Jesus’ sayings, let’s take a look at the name itself. In modern America, many people pronounce it “Geezuz,” which would have been unrecognizable to Jesus’ family and friends. We’ll work backwards to see how it got this way.

The hard “J” that sounds like “G” (as in George) became permanently affixed to “Jesus” in 1611 CE by the King James Version of the bible, by which time the letter “J” had finally entered English. Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the hard “J” had slowly evolved out of the much softer “IA,” primarily because people thought the hardness sounded more masculine: Iames became James, Ian and Iain became John (except in Scotland), Iestin became Justin, Ieremias became Jeremiah, and Iesus (ee-ay-soos) became Jesus (Gee-sus).

The 1384 CE translation by John Wycliffe from the Latin Vulgate bible into English had retained the earlier Latin “Iesus” (“ee-ay-soos”), which dated back to 382 CE, when Jerome completed the translation of the bible from Koine Greek into common (or “vulgar”) Latin. The Vulgate codified “Iesus” in Latin as the transliteration of Ἰησοῦς (Ihsous, pronounced  “ee-ay-soos”)  from the Koine Greek of the original New Testament books.

Koine Greek was the written language of the New Testament, but was not the only language spoken in first century Judea – Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin were also spoken; Aramaic was the predominant language around Galilee, whence came Jesus, the man. His Aramaic name was masculinized into New Testament Greek by adding  “–s” to the end. [Think of Diogenes, Orestes, Herodotus, Ulysses.]  Greek had neither the letter nor the sound of “Y;” “IH” was the closest approximation.

Joshua fittin' the battle of Jericho (Noise Curmudgeon)

Joshua fittin’ the battle of Jericho, which sat on an earthquake fault (Noise Curmudgeon)

So the actual name of Jesus the person would have been “Y’shua”  (Yod-Shin-Vav-Ayin) Y’-Sh-U-A. This spelling had evolved over centuries from “Yeshua”, which had, by the fifth century BCE, evolved from Yehoshu’a (“Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh will deliver”). Thus Y’shua, Yeshua and Yehoshu’a have all come down to us as “Joshua.” The name “Joshua” appears in seven books of the Jewish testament, most notably as the one who “fit the battle of Jericho,” as the song goes.

Jesus = Joshua = Yeshua = Yehoshu’a. But there’s more. Yeshua’s father was Joseph, which through similar changes was transliterated from Aramaic Yôsēp̄ and Hebrew Yossif (יוֹסֵף֙ – Yoseph “he will add) . In Hebrew “ben” was added to indicate “son of,” as in Ben-Hur (“son of Hur”) or Ben-Gurion; this becamebar” in Aramaic, as in “Bar-Abba[-s]” or “Barabbas” (“son of Abba[-s]”) Matt 27-16

We can conclude that Jesus would have answered to the name Yeshua (or Y’shua) Bar-Yôsēp̄, a good Jewish Aramaic name. This brings us to a mystery, to be addressed in next week’s bible factoid.

Part I – What About That Dove? & The Flood of the Gilgamesh
Part II – Sandgrouse or Quail? & YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part V – The Friendly Raven & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation
[Chuck Almdale]

Additional Sources:
Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 7. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (2002) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Acorn Woodpecker – Pgs 441-442.
Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 13. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2008) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Shrikes, Loggerhead Shrike – Pgs 744-747, 785-786.
Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 14. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2009) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Nutcrackers, Clark’s Nutcracker – Pgs 611-613.
Birder’s Handbook. Ehrlich, Paul R., Dobkin, David S. & Wheye, Darryl. (1988) Simon & Schuster, New York. Pgs 344, 410, 466.
New English Bible with the Apocrypha, The, Oxford Study Edition. Sandmel, Samuel, Suggs, M. Jack, Tkacik, Arnold J.; eds. (1972) Oxford University Press, New York

%d bloggers like this: