This is the first of a new series we are running through this year on “. . . Through the Lens of Faith” in which various Emerging Scholars reflect on how their faith has informed how they view their discipline. Our “Call for Articles on Faith and Fields of Study” includes submission guidelines as well as our offer of a free book for each accepted article.
Over 20 years ago, I was working as an ornithologist in a place that had a world record of bird diversity: Tambopata, Peru, in the Amazon rainforest. I monitored the artificial and natural nests of the macaws that resided in the area. I also counted the parrots and any other animal that went to the biggest clay lick in the world. It was very hot and humid, full of mosquitos and chiggers but I enjoyed every moment when I stopped to watch any bird. The Principal Investigator of the project was an American biologist, and one morning, he stayed with me to count the birds coming to the clay lick. That sunny morning was bursting with moving colors, a noisy feast of the macawsâ€™ feathers. Then the PI exclaimed in his well-learned Peruvian Spanish, â€œP$M%!! This is beautiful!â€ But almost simultaneously, I exclaimed, â€œGlory to the Lord for his creation!â€
This anecdote shows two persons astonished by the birds’ beauty in an almost undisturbed portion of the Amazon rainforest. Both ornithologists, so an emotional reaction was inevitable. But it was different in each one. One was cursing. The other was praising. I was very foul-mouthed when I was younger, so I don’t think I am better than my former boss. However, I learned to appreciate the beauty of nature, birds included, by praising the Creator. That specific moment in the Amazon Forest and any moment when I can identify a bird through my binoculars, I recall Psalm 50:10-11: “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains and the insects in the field are mine.” Birds show me a way to connect with the Creator.
When I started to study Biology at a state university in Lima, Peru, I also started my Christian journey as a follower of Jesus Christ. Learning the inner secrets of the cell, the behavior of animals, or plant adaptations motivated me to stop momentarily and praise God for his creation. Birds were highly conspicuous and too beautiful to be ignored, so I decided to focus on them for my future research. I did surveys of aquatic birds along the western coast of South America and collaborated with fellow researchers to monitor them. Several of these birds are migrants from North America, escaping the cold winter; they find food and shelter in their non-breeding ground in South America. Many times, I watched the birds leaving and coming back following the seasons. Later, while doing a Bible study, I was surprised that the prophet Jeremiah reported the same and used this process of bird migration to draw out a teaching! â€œEven the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the Lord.â€ (Jeremiah 8:7). When I am invited to talk about bird migration, I add this Bible verse to explain how this phenomenon was recognized thousands of years ago.
After I got my B.S. in Biology, I continued to develop my career with an M.Sc. in Zoology. Behind my parentâ€™s house in Lima is a private park that hosts several bird species due to its diverse vegetation. I had my study area secured. I chose the topic of urban birds. I monitored the bird community through observations and captured specimens to band them for several years. When I defended my M.Sc. dissertation, I started by showing this Bible verse: â€œEven the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her youngâ€” a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.â€ (Psalm 84:3). I explained to my thesis committee and the public present that in ancient Israel, where most of the environment was a desert, similar to the original biome of Lima city, the birds used human-made structures such as a temple to get refuge. After I finished my M.Sc. I kept monitoring the birds in this park, and when I analyzed the data, I found out how long the birds lived there through the information provided by recaptured birds with bands. I was able to report records of longevity of some bird species in western South America. The fact that the sparrow I banded was recovered many years ago made me thank God. He did not let this bird fall on the ground (Matthew 10:29). He let it fall into my net so that I could record it!
For my Ph.D. dissertation, I researched the bird-plant interactions in the Andes of Peru. The montane forest has different levels of elevation where it is possible to detect different communities of plants and birds. One level with several unique species is the Elfin Forest, where the Amazon changes to the Puna Highlands. I worked on hummingbirds and flowerpiercers, which are nectarivore birds, and the plants they visit to understand how they interact in this assemblage. I detected keystone species that shape the Elfin Forestâ€™s ecosystem. Sometimes, I was alone walking in those mountains of central Peru, and I watched the water coming out of the rocks and forming a ravine, which later would form a river. The vegetation close to those water sources was a good place for birdwatching. Then, Psalm 104:10-12 came to mind: â€œHe makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.â€
Birds do not live alone. They are part of an ecosystem, which people manage almost all the time (or mismanage). Something else I do is promote the conservation of important bird areas. While exploring several natural areas of Peru in the tropical Andes, I found significant communities of Evangelical Christians living near wetlands and forests. I approached them and explained that part of our Christian ethos is to take care of the land and its resources because God gave them to us as stewards, and we will be held accountable. That is the principle of creation care for Christians. Conservation of nature will fail if the local people who use the natural resources and benefit from the ecological services are not considered. Their inner values, such as religious principles, matter. It is possible to conserve areas and species by acknowledging religious values and working alongside faith leaders. After finishing my Ph.D. dissertation, I am happy to see that the areas where I did my research are legally protected. My studies were used to justify the creation of those areas. I will dare to affirm that bird conservation is also in the will of the Creator. Here is the order of God to Noah: â€œTake with youâ€¦ seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.â€ (Genesis 7:2-3).
When remembering my trips to the almost unexplored forests of Peru or checking the most common birds at the university campus, I marvel at bird adaptations. As the birdwatcher and theologian John Stott explained: The birds are our teachers. â€œBut ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?â€ (Job 12: 7-9). I look forward to keep learning the deep secrets of ecological interactions from birds and thanking the Lord of the birds for the privilege of hearing their songs and contemplating their colors.
 Hilty, S. 1994. Birds of tropical America. Chapters Publishing Ltd, Shelburne, Vermont, USA.
 Hirsh, ML. 2015. Why Do Hundreds of Macaws Gather at These Peruvian Clay Banks? Smithsonian Magazine https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/why-do-hundreds-macaws-gather-these-peruvian-clay-banks-180955719/
 Gonzalez, O. 2019. Faith and Passion Fuel Bird Conservation in Peru. BioLogos Foundation. Creation Care Section https://biologos.org/articles/faith-and-passion-fuel-bird-conservation-in-peru
 Gonzalez, O. & V. Pulido Caputto. 2011. PerÃº: informe anual. Censo Neotropical de Aves AcuÃ¡ticas 2010 [en lÃnea]. In Unterkofler D.A. y D.E. Blanco (eds.): El Censo Neotropical de Aves AcuÃ¡ticas 2010. Wetlands International, Buenos Aires, Argentina http://lac.wetlands.org/
 Gonzalez, O. 2021. Longevity estimates of urban birds from Lima, Peru. Cotinga 43:62-65.
 Gonzalez, O. & B. Loiselle. 2016. Bird-flowering plant network in the Andes: phenology is more important than abundance or morphology. PeerJ 4: e2789; Gonzalez, O., Diaz, C. & B. Britto. 2019. Assemblage of nectarivorous birds and their floral resources in an elfin forest of the central Andes of Peru. Ecologia Aplicada 18(1):21-35.
 Gonzalez, O., Prance, G.T. & A.J. Swoboda. 2018. The Pentecostal church as a potential partner for conservation in the Latin American tropics. Razon y Pensamiento Cristiano 7(2); and Gonzalez, O. 2018. Preaching Conservation to Andean Pentecostal Communities: A Case of Engaging Key Stakeholders of Religious Communities in Peruvian Tropical Forests. Case Studies in the Environment 2(1):1-10.
 Schaefer, J., Magellan, K., Sluka, R., Kolipaka, S., Gonzalez, O., Razali, AA, Clements, GR & C. Elkin. 2020. The efficacy of using SCB guidelines to facilitate conservation science-faith collaboration: Experiences from the field. Frontiers in Environmental Science 8: 558956.
 Stott, J. 1999. The Birds our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird-Watcher. Oxon: Candle Books.
 Gonzalez, O. 2019. Trends in the Ecology and Evolution of Birds. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 34(10):879-880.
About the author:
Oscar Gonzalez (Ph.D. University of Florida) is an associate professor of Biology and coordinator of the environmental science program at Anderson University, South Carolina. He is a Peruvian ornithologist with many years of research on avian ecology. Besides researching the ecological interactions of plants and animals, Oscar has been promoting creation care in his native country for several years.