“Examples are found among certain species of birds whose young are not able to seek out food for themselves immediately after hatching. In fact, since a bird does not nourish its young with milk, made available by nature as it were, as occurs in the case of quadrupeds, but the bird must look elsewhere for food for its young, and since besides this it must protect them by sitting on them, the female is not able to do this by herself. So, as a result of divine providence, there is naturally implanted in the male of these animals a tendency to remain with the female in order to bring up the young.”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, Bk III, chapter 122
Thomas Aquinas often looks to lower creatures to find important lessons about human life.
Interestingly, when it comes to understanding marriage and family life he sometimes refers to birds. Some might find this strange. Is he in some way reducing us to their level? I think not; rather, the profound difference between humans and birds is compatible with real similarities. And perhaps to see and learn from these similarities, and differences, is a fitting exercise in humility.
Birds are remarkable parents to their offspring. In short, bird parents display a total focus on providing all that is needful for their young, whatever it might be. Yesterday I saw a Baltimore Oriole chasing away a crow, and tree swallows dive bombing a cat–dangerous operations both. They incubate a nest of eggs for weeks, silent and vigilant without cease, exposing themselves once again to great dangers. This is followed by a relentless, coordinated effort to keep the young fed.
Aquinas particularly noticed the importance of the male parent. In order for the needs of the young to be met, the attentive presence of both mother and father will be necessary.
He also remarks that bird parenting, while intense and shared, only need last for the course of a season until the young are fledged. Human parenting, on the other hand, lasts a lifetime. It does not end when children are fledged; it simply changes. Once a human parent, always a human parent; mature children may need us less, but our role never ceases. This is a central sign, says Aquinas, that marriage is permanent. The role of parenting is never simply finished. [See this earlier post on aging parents.]
If we step outside this time of year, something beautiful is going on all around us, as almost every bird we see is actively engaged in some aspect of parenting right now. They make it look quite natural and go about their business as if this is simply the daily stuff of their life. And indeed, it is.
What a joy and a blessing to reflect, in view of the birds, on the deeper and permanent aspects of human parenting.
~ ~ ~
St. Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274) is considered by many to be the greatest theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages. A Dominican friar, a major interpreter of Aristotle, and a Master of Theology at the University of Paris, he was known for his humility, and his single-minded devotion to teaching.
Image: a male Northern Cardinal attends to his offspring.