[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
Bibliography InformationSmith, William, Dr. "Entry for 'Birds'". "Smith's Bible Dictionary".
I. Meaning of the Word.
All authorities agree that the exact origin of the word bird, as we apply it to feathered creatures, is unknown.
1. In Early Hebrew:
The Hebrew `ayiT means to "tear and scratch the face," and in its original form undoubtedly applied to birds of prey. It is probable that no spot of equal size on the face of the globe ever collected such numbers of vultures, eagles and hawks as ancient Palestine. The land was so luxuriant that flocks and herds fed from the face of Nature. In cities, villages, and among tent-dwellers incessant slaughter went on for food, while the heavens must almost have been obscured by the ascending smoke from the burning of sacrificed animals and birds, required by law of every man and woman. From all these slain creatures the offal was thrown to the birds. There were no guns; the arrows of bowmen or "throw sticks" were the only protection against them, and these arms made no noise to frighten feathered creatures, and did small damage. So it easily can be seen that the birds would increase in large numbers and become so bold that men were often in actual conflict with them, and no doubt their faces and hands were torn and scratched.
2. In Later Usage:
Later, as birds of song and those useful for food came into their lives, the word was stretched to cover all feathered creatures. In the King James Version `ayiT is translated "fowl," and occurs several times:
"And when the fowls came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away" (Genesis 15:11). "They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth; and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them" (Isaiah 18:6). "There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture's eye hath not seen" (Job 28:7). The American Standard Revised Version changes these and all other references to feathered creatures to "birds," making a long list. The Hebrew `ayiT in its final acceptance was used in Palestine as "bird" is with us.
3. In Old English:
Our earliest known form of the word is the Old English "brid," but they applied the term to the young of any creature. Later its meaning was narrowed to young produced from eggs, and the form changed to "bird."
II. Natural History of Birds.
The first known traces of birds appear in the formation of the Triassic period, and are found in the shape of footprints on the red sandstone of the Connecticut valley.
1. Earliest Traces and Specimens:
This must have been an ancient sea bed over which stalked large birds, leaving deeply imprinted impressions of their feet. These impressions baked in the sun, and were drifted full of fine wind-driven sand before the return of the tide. Thus were preserved to us the traces of 33 species of birds all of which are proven by their footprints to have been much larger than our birds of today. The largest impressions ever found measured 15 inches in length by 10 in width, and were set from 4 to 6 ft. apart. This evidence would form the basis for an estimate of a bird at least four times as large as an ostrich. That a bird of this size ever existed was not given credence until the finding of the remains of the dinornis in New Zealand. The largest specimen of this bird stood 10 1/2 ft. in height. The first complete skeleton of a bird was found in the limestone of the Jurassic period in Solenhofen, Bavaria. This bird had 13 teeth above and 3 below, each set in a separate socket, wings ending in three-fingered claws much longer than the claws of the feet, and a tail of 20 vertebrae, as long as the body, having a row of long feathers down each side of it, the specimen close to the size of a crow. The first preserved likeness of a bird was found frescoed on the inside of a tomb of Maydoon, and is supposed to antedate the time of Moses 3,000 years. It is now carefully preserved in the museum of Cairo. The painting represents six geese, four of which can be recognized readily as the ancestors of two species known today. Scientists now admit that Moses was right in assigning the origin of birds to the water, as their structure is closer reptilian than mammalian, and they reproduce by eggs. To us it seems a long stretch between the reptile with a frame most nearly bird-like and a feathered creature, but there is a possibility that forms making closer connection yet will be found.
2. Structural Formation:
The trunk of a bird is compact and in almost all instances boat-shaped. Without doubt prehistoric man conceived his idea of navigation and fashioned his vessel from the body of a water bird, and then noticed that a soaring bird steered its course with its tail and so added the rudder. The structural formation of a bird is so arranged as to give powerful flight and perfect respiration. In the case of a few birds that do not fly, the wings are beaten to assist in attaining speed in running, as the ostrich, or to help in swimming under the water, as the auk. The skull of a young bird is made up of parts, as is that of man or animal; but with age these parts join so evenly that they appear in a seamless formation. The jaws extend beyond the face, forming a bill that varies in length and shape with species, and it is used in securing food, in defense, feather dressing, nest building--in fact it is a combination of the mouth and hand of man. The spine is practically immovable, because of the ribs attached to the upper half and the bony structure supporting the pelvic joints of the lower. In sharp contrast with this the neck is formed of from 10 to 23 vertebrae, and is so flexible that a bird can turn its head completely around, a thing impossible to man or beast. The breast bone is large, strong, and provided with a ridge in the middle, largest in birds of strong flight, smallest in swimmers, and lacking only in birds that do not fly, as the ostrich. The wings correspond to the arms of man, and are now used in flight and swimming only. Such skeletons as the Archeopteryx prove that the bones now combined in the tip of the wing were once claws. This shows that as birds spread over land and developed wing power in searching longer distances for food or when driven by varying conditions of climate, the wings were used more in flight, and the claws gradually joined in a tip and were given covering that grew feathers, while the bill became the instrument for taking food and for defense. At the same time the long tail proving an encumbrance, it gradually wore away and contracted to the present form. Studied in detail of bony structure, muscle, and complicated arrangement of feathers of differing sizes, the wing of a bird proves one of Nature's marvels. The legs are used in walking or swimming, the thigh joint being so enveloped in the body that the true leg is often mistaken for it. This makes the knee of a man correspond to the heel of a bird, and in young birds of prey especially, the shank or tarsus is used in walking, until the bones harden and the birds are enabled to bear their weight on the feet and straighten the shank. The toes vary with species. Pliny classified birds by them:
"The first and principal difference and distinction in birds is taken from their feet; for they have either hooked talons, as Hawkes, or long round claws as Hens, or else they be broad, flat and whole- footed as Geese." Flight is only possible to a bird when both wings are so nearly full-feathered that it balances perfectly. In sleep almost every bird places its head under its wing and stands on one foot. The arrangement by which this is accomplished, without tiring the bird in the least, is little short of miraculous and can be the result only of slow ages of evolution. In the most finished degree this provision for the comfort of the bird is found among cranes and other long- legged water birds. The bone of one part of the leg fits into the bone of the part above, so that it is practically locked into place with no exertion on the part of the bird. At the same time the muscles that work the claws, cross the joints of the leg so that they are stretched by the weight of the bird, and with no effort, it stands on earth or perches on a branch. This explains the question so frequently asked as to why the feet of a perching bird do not become so cramped and tired that it falls.
3. Birds' Food, Blood, etc.:
Birds feed according to their nature, some on prey taken alive, some on the carrion of dead bodies, some on fish and vegetable products of the water, some on fruit seed, insects and worms of the land. Almost every bird indulges in a combination of differing foods. Their blood is from 12 degrees to 16 degrees warmer than that of the rest of the animal kingdom, and they exhibit a corresponding exhilaration of spirits. Some indulge in hours of sailing and soaring, some in bubbling notes of song, while others dart near earth in playful dashes of flight. Birds are supposed to be rather deficient in the senses of taste and touch, and to have unusually keen vision. They reproduce by eggs that they deposit in a previously selected and prepared spot, and brood for a length of time varying with the species. The young of birds of prey, song birds, and some water birds, remain in the nests for differing lengths of time and are fed by the old birds; while others of the water birds and most of the game birds leave the nest as soon as the down is dry, and find food as they are taught by their elders, being sheltered at night so long as needful.
III. Birds of the Bible.
The birds of the Bible were the same species and form as exist in Palestine today. Because of their wonderful coloring, powerful flight, joyous song, and their similarity to humanity in home-making and the business of raising their young, birds have been given much attention, and have held conspicuous place since the dawn of history. When the brain of man was young and more credulous than today he saw omens, signs and miracles in the characteristic acts of birds, and attributed to them various marvelous powers:
some were considered of good omen and a blessing, and some were bad and a curse.
1. Earliest Mention:
The historians of the Bible frequently used birds in comparison, simile, and metaphor. They are first mentioned in Genesis 7:14,15, "They, and every beast after its kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort." This is the enumeration of the feathered creatures taken into the ark to be preserved for the perpetuation of species after the flood abated. They are next found in the description of the sacrifice of Abram, where it was specified that he was to use, with the animals slaughtered, a turtle dove and a young pigeon, the birds not to be divided. It is also recorded that the birds of prey were attracted by the carcasses as described in Genesis 15:9-11, "And he said unto him, Take me a heifer three years old, and a she-goat three years old, and a ram three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. And he took him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other:
but the birds divided he not. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away." Palestine abounded in several varieties of "doves" (which see) and their devotion to each other, and tender, gentle characteristics had marked them as a loved possession of the land; while the clay cotes of pigeons were reckoned in establishing an estimate of a man's wealth.
2. Used in Sacrifice:
In an abandon of gratitude to God these people offered of their best-loved and most prized possessions as sacrifice; and so it is not surprising to find the history of burnt offerings frequently mentioning these birds which were loved and prized above all others. Their use is first commanded in Leviticus 1:14-17, "And if his oblation to Yahweh be a burnt-offering of birds, then he shall offer his oblation of turtle-doves, or of young pigeons. And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off its head , and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be drained out on the side of the altar; and he shall take away its crop with the filth thereof, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, in the place of the ashes." Again in Leviticus 5:7-10, we read:
"And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his trespass- offering for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, unto Yahweh; one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering." Throughout the Bible these birds figure in the history of sacrifice (Leviticus 12:8; 14:4-8; Numbers 6:10, etc.).
3. Other References:
The custom of weaving cages of willow wands, in which to confine birds for pets, seems to be referred to when Job asks (Job 41:5):
+ "Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? Or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?" - See Job 12:7: + "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; And the birds of the heavens, and they shall tell thee." David was thinking of the swift homeward flight of an eagle when he wrote: "In Yahweh do I take refuge: How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?" (Psalms 11:1).
His early days guarding the flocks of his father no doubt suggested to him the statement found in Psalms 50:11:
"I know all the birds of the mountains; And the wild beasts of the field are mine" (the Revised Version margin, "in my mind"). In describing Lebanon, the Psalmist wrote of its waters: "By them the birds of the heavens have their habitation; They sing among the branches" (Psalms 104:12). - He mentioned its trees: + "Where the birds make their nests: As for the stork, the fir-trees are her house" (Psalms 104:17). - See also Psalms 78:27; 148:10.
The origin of the oft-quoted phrase, "A little bird told me," can be found in Ecclesiastes 10:20:
"Revile not the king, no, not in thy thought; and revile not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." In a poetical description of spring in the So of Solomon, we read: + "The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing of birds is come, And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land" (Song of Solomon 2:12). - In his prophecy concerning Ethiopia, Isaiah wrote, "They shall be left together unto the ravenous birds of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth; and the ravenous birds shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them" (Isaiah 18:6). In foretelling God's judgment upon Babylon, Isaiah (Isaiah 46:11) refers to Cyrus as "a ravenous bird (called) from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country"; "probably in allusion to the fact that the griffon was the emblem of Persia; and embroidered on its standard" (HDB, I, 632); (see EAGLE). Jeremiah 4:25 describes the habit of birds, which invariably seek shelter before an approaching storm. In His denunciation of Israel, Yahweh questions, in Jeremiah 12:9, "Is my heritage unto me as a speckled bird of prey? are the birds of prey against her round about?" When Jeremiah threatened the destruction of Jerusalem, he wrote that Yahweh would "cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies will I give to be food for the birds of the heavens" (Jeremiah 19:7): that is, He would leave them for the carrion eaters. Ezekiel threatens the same fate to the inhabitants of Gog (Ezekiel 39:4,17). Hosea (Hosea 9:11) prophesies of Ephraim, "Their glory shall fly away like a bird." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions the birds, as recorded by Matthew 6:26: "Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?" In the sermon from the boat where He spoke the parable of the Sower He again mentioned the birds: "As he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them" (Matthew 13:4). Mark describes the same sermon in Mark 4:4, and Mark 4:32 quotes the parable of the Mustard Seed: "Yet when it is sown, (it) groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof." In Luke 8:5, Luke gives his version of the parable of the Sower, and in Luke 13:19 of the Mustard Seed. See also Revelation 19:17,21. These constitute all the important references to birds in the Bible, with the exception of a few that seem to belong properly under such subjects as TRAP; NET; CAGE, etc..
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