Bird-Watching and Philosophy
April 26, 2017

“Animals differ from one another in their modes of subsistence, in their actions, in their habits, and in their parts.”
Aristotle, The History of Animals

Sometimes I am asked what I recommend to prepare young people for doing philosophy. There are of course different ways to dispose young minds for pursuing wisdom.

Bird-watching is one of them.

I often tell my students that using the human mind is an exercise in seeing sameness and difference. To grasp the essence of something is to grasp how at the same time it is similar to and also different from other things.

The bird-watcher, captivated by the beauty of these amazing creatures, learns to be an attentive observer of natural kinds and the differences between them. In living creatures, especially animals, certain basic truths are particularly evident: such as the importance of natural kinds, and the order and purposiveness of the natural world.

Bird-watchers learn to notice sameness and difference. Motivated by interest, indeed love of birds, they learn to discriminate and to wonder at what they see.

A few weeks ago my 5 year old son and I were watching birds coming to our simple front-porch feeder. In addition to our regular Tufted Titmouses (Titmice?) and Downy Woodpeckers there was also a Nuthatch. I remember well when I was young watching birds with my father how we noticed that the nuthatch perches and moves on a tree “upside down.” Here my son and I were observing the same thing. Raphael asked me, “Why do Nuthatches do that?” Good question, to which I do not know the answer. But for some reason they do.

As we watched I had an especially exciting moment as another bird came in that looked much like the nuthatch, but was clearly different. Upon my pointing it out Raphael did not see the difference I had immediately noticed. We continued to observe together. Closer examination revealed a unique white stripe over the eye, accented by a black patch passing through the eye.

Having some confidence we had discerned a difference we went to our bird book. And sure enough: there is a white-breasted nuthatch, the only nuthatch up to this point I had ever seen, and a red-breasted nuthatch with those different head markings. It was so exciting; we could add a new bird to our list!

In my opinion there is no real reason for youth today to read the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle before the age of sixteen, and perhaps not before college. But a habit of observing the natural world with attention and interest–and thus also humility–can be cultivated from the earliest years. And indeed it is never too late for any of us to be nourished–in ways that might surprise us–by a deeper familiarity and appreciation of our fellow creatures.

Note: In the next couple of weeks I intend to share some basics about visual and audio identification of a few common birds around us. My hope is to encourage and enable more of us to have the joy of daily recognition of birds.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

Image: above, the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Below, the white-breasted nuthatch.
White-breasted Nuthatch

Leave a Reply


  1. I have bird-watched for many years. Never fails to fill me with delight

  2. I love reading your articles! Thank you for taking the time to write them. 🙂

    1. Mary, You are very welcome. Thank you for your kindness.

  3. Hello John,

    Which book do you use?

    I have also enjoyed looking at birds with my two and three year old sons. We’re blessed to live on a property abutting a forest, so we get quite a few characters. We live in southern Carroll County, MD.

    Has a northern flicker ever graced your property?

    1. Hi Joshua,
      My father used the Stoke’s Guide, and we do too. It has beautiful photos. Oh yes, the flicker was one of my father’s favorites, and we are blessed with them too. Do you ever see the pileated woodpecker? We are fortunate to see them, or hear them, fairly regularly. I’ve heard that each mating pair requires about 500 acres of woods.

      1. Thanks! I’ll have to check that out.

        Only rarely see them, but hear them fairly frequently. What do they like to eat?

        We’re looking forward to summer, late-night owl hearing season too.

        “All you birds of the air, bless the Lord;
        praise and exalt him above all forever.”

  4. Professor Cuddeback,

    Thank you so much for these writings. I always look forward to what you will post next 🙂

    I am blessed to have various birds visit our back yard daily and as others have posted, I observe and I am just in awe of all the Lord has created! I often think how birds fly around us and we can become too busy to take notice. An opportunity to connect with God through His creation and sit in wonderment.

    Thank you Lord, for the moments that I am aware of the beauty that surrounds me.

    “Gaudentes in Veritate” -“Those rejoicing in the Truth”

    1. Amen!

  5. Another excellent topic.

    Might you know of a good guide for identifying birdsong? I’m currently hunting for a good written source. A CD, mp3 or app would rob the fun out of it…

    1. Viaestatu, Thank you. That is a great question. There are simple descriptions in my Stokes book, but that probably wouldn’t suffice. I’ll keep my eyes open; if you find something, please let me know.

  6. Elizabeth O'Toole

    Thank you, Dr. Cuddeback, for another wonderful article teaching us to slow down and contemplate God’s world around us. From gardening to bird watching, you’re truly inspiring to us. We, too, are blessed to have some property where birds like to stop and rest a bit. I love to open our kitchen windows and hear all the “chatter” outside. I call it that, but it’s really more like natural music! I enjoy trying to identify which birds are visiting by the different calls and whistles before I see them.:))

    God bless you, your family, and your students.

    (I was blessed to find out about your blog from one of your former students! She, also, has been an inspiration for me to look at the beauty of Catholic homeschooling life rather than just it’s daily duties. Sometimes a difficult chore for a mom!)

    1. Elizabeth,
      hank you very much for sharing these thoughts and for your kind words. Keep on enjoying that beautiful music, and may God bless you too.

  7. I bird-watch in our suburban neighborhood (and I completely attribute the affinity for it to Gpa, and do it more since he is gone too). I have seen two “new” birds this spring — an oriole and a cedar waxwing, and that was exciting to add new birds to my rather repetitive and short list of sightings! I also learned that a wren was the extremely loud bird waking me on early spring mornings. 🙂

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