Nature & Birds

The Holy Family Ate those Pesky House Sparrows

by Steve Ray on September 11, 2016

The Holy Family was not wealthy. When you had a firstborn son in Israel you were required to take a lamb to the Temple for the redemption of your firstborn son but if you were poor you could take to turtledoves instead. Mary and Joseph took the two turtledoves or pigeons which demonstrates they were not a wealthy family (Lk 2:24).

Another food that was common among the people of Israel and the Middle East, and still is today, were grasshoppers, locusts and crickets.

According to the law of Moses insects and swarming things were unclean. But of all the insects these three were kosher (Lev 11:22). These were the crickets, locusts and grasshoppers. John the Baptist would not have eaten them if they were not clean according to the law of Moses. But we know that he did eat them (Mt 3:4) and so did I.

Janet and I were sitting on our back porch yesterday morning drinking our coffee and discussing the Mass readings for the day. Jesus said “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny…”

I am mediately interrupted my reading and said to my wife, “Why would anyone sell two sparrows? And why would anybody want to buy them?” This sent me on a quest.

My first bird book when I was a kid

My discovery amazed me!

My father moved us out to the country in 1961. I was only six years old when we moved to a little farm forty miles west of Detroit Michigan. My father instilled in me a love for watching birds and I have been an avid birdwatcher around the world ever since. I still have my books from 10 years old marking the dates and list of all the birds I’ve seen and when I saw them.

One of the birds that we find everywhere and I’ve always called it a “rat with wings” was the ubiquitous House Sparrow. They always destroyed the eggs of the beautiful Bluebirds in the bluebird houses we had built. In every way we have considered them pests and I cannot recall how many I have shot with my pellet gun.
That all changed yesterday morning when my wife and I were drinking our coffee and reading the daily readings of the Church.

With Jesus’s words about sparrows being sold two for a penny or three for two pennies (Mt 10:29; 12:6) my questions popped up.

My first inquiry was what the word “sparrow” meant. I discovered the word was usually used generically for any small bird, but presumably and most likely the House Sparrow (passer domesticus) which originated in the Middle East! Surprise, Surprise! They are a biblical bird! I was always under the impression they were from Europe, but nope. They immigrated to Europe and America.

My second inquiry was “Why would anyone want to buy the sparrows?” And then I found the big surprise — they were used as food by the poor people among the Jews because they were considered a clean food — kosher. Entrepreneurs would trap them and sell them. The purchaser would kill them, pluck them and cook them.

According to a popular Jewish commentary on Deuteronomy we read, “In practice, only a limited number of birds (and their eggs) are considered permissible [kosher]: chicken, capon, Cornish hen, turkey, domestic duck and goose, house sparrow, pigeon, squab, palm dove, turtledove, partridge, peacock, and, according to some authorities, guinea-fowl, quail, and what is today called pheasant.” Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 139.

Emperor Domitian had a special price limitation on food items and the sparrows were the cheapest among those food price limitations he set.

Sparrows on skewers for cooking

Sparrows were sold in the marketplace and eaten frequently enough for Jesus to mention them as something that everyone would commonly know. Sparrows were eaten as a common food.

I found lots of quotes from historical sources but way too many to add here.

But one thing is for certain, we have very little idea of the Holy Family’s day-to-day living and what they experienced  000 years ago — and what they ate. Grasshoppers, sparrows…?

Next time I have all the grandkids here at our home — I doubt they’ll eat the grasshoppers — but I’ll bet they enjoy the sparrow pie — especially if I don’t tell him what’s in it :-)

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The lady at the pet store told me I was a sick individual. I didn’t think so, but then again I am biased and think I’m OK – and my wife tends to agree with me.

The whole thing started because of a small hobby of mine. When I was a little boy my dad bought me binoculars and a bird book (picture: still have that first bird book ). I sat under trees for hours and kept track of the birds I found. It was great fun. How many people have had the pleasure of discovering Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Rufous-sided Towhees, or Northern Snowbirds?

Janet and I live in the country with a large field behind our house. Last week a raccoon was hit by a car near our home—it didn’t listen to his mother when she warned him about playing in the road. At least that’s what we told our kids as they were growing up—a lesson in obeying parents!

Anyway, I had the crazy idea to pick up the dead raccoon, toss him on the hood of my car, and throw him in our back field to see if the Turkey Vultures would come to eat it. Looking at the head of this vulture will give you an idea where he got his name. The lady at the pet store told me I was a sick individual because I told her what I had done.  I told her our bird feeders are often visited by the smallest bird in Michigan – the hummingbird – so we thought we would try to attract one of the largest birds in Michigan.

It didn’t take long. The large shadow passed by my window as I was working on my laptop and sure enough it was Mr. Vulture circling with his 6 foot wingspan. I slipped out to the back porch to watch. Janet joined me and we were intrigued as nine Turkey Vultures from every corner of the county swirled and swooped, landing around the raccoon to tear the corpse to ribbons with their sharp, hooked beaks. They fought, danced, challenged each other with their wings spread—all while Janet and I watched the show. They came back the next few days until all that was left was a bare skeleton.

We told the grandkids about the vultures and they said, “Bampa, get ‘nother  coon! We want see bultures!” So I jumped in the car and found another road-kill-coon and brought him back on the hood of my car. I got more than one shocked look from fellow drivers. I was laughing my head off—kind of like watching people react on Candid Camera.

It wasn’t long before the whole feathered gang was putting on a show for us again in the back yard. The grandkids sat and watched and kept shouting “bulchers, bampa, bultures!”

It got me thinking of what the Bible says about vultures and birds of prey. There are about ten species of high-flying, carrion-eating birds in Israel. They are all kind of lumped together in the Bible. My book Birds of Israel says that one is called an Egyptian Vulture (see picture below) and another the Common Buzzard.

The Jews were forbidden to eat these birds. Geez, I guess so. When I was about ten years old, I caught a baby vulture and he puked rotten meat all over me. It was his means of self defense—scaring off the enemy, and it worked!

Who could image eating an ugly bird that eats such rotten meat? The Jews were also forbidden from eating catfish since they are also bottom feeders. Even today Jewish fishermen kill every catfish they catch to decrease their population in the Sea of Galilee. God forbade Jews from eating such animals—and pigs too.

But others think it means that at the end of time, just as these birds of prey gather where the rotting carcasses are, so the judgments of God will descend upon the corrupt state of humanity. When the world has degenerated to the point that it resembles a maggot-infested corpse, when the world’s cup of iniquity is full, then Christ will condemn the world. The vultures might represent the judgment of God.Jesus mentions these birds once in the gospels.

It is recorded in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37. In speaking of the end times he says, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” It seems Jesus is quoting a common proverb of his time. No one is quite sure what Jesus meant and it is difficult to figure out. Word Biblical Commentary thinks it refers to the unmistakable character of Jesus Second Coming. As surely as you know that where you see vultures gathered there is a carcass, so you will not be able to miss the coming of the Son of Man.

Carrion eating birds are mentioned again at the judgment in the last days, “Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men,’. . . And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Rev 17:17-21).

As I watched the vultures gorging on the dead raccoons this week, I thought of the end times when the world becomes so corrupt and putrid—crawling with maggots and foul smelling in God’s nostrils—that God will put an end to it and judge the earth. Christ will come again. In that day the vultures will not waste time on raccoons, they will feast on human flesh. They will fill their foul bellies with meat torn from the enemies of God.

Last Sunday at Mass I recited the Nicene Creed and I believed it. “We look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”  I, for one, expect my flesh to rise on the last day to glory and the beatific vision, not to be torn and eaten by the hooked bills of stinking, unclean birds—symbolic of the judgment and punishment of God. (Picture: a scene about resurrection from our “Jesus, the Word Became Flesh” movie)

But in the meantime, we will enjoy watching the vultures eat from our unique birdfeeder in the back yard. It will be a daily reminder to be holy and remain in the grace and friendship of God—prepared for the Last Day and the final judgment.

I will also try to convince myself that I am not a sick individual :-) By the way, what right did that lady have to call me sick when she was selling me crickets to feed to my tarantula? The nerve of some people!

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Bald Eagle out our Window

by Steve Ray on April 15, 2013

Last week we were sitting in our bedroom. I was writing and working on e-mails. My wife let out a surprised shout, “Look, a bald Eagle!” I jumped up and tripped over the chair in our room.

The eagle was a mature one with bright white head and tail. He sat in our tree for a few moments and then flew away, waving good-bye with his white tail feathers.

Sorry it is not a better picture. My son snapped it with his iphone.

All the grandkids got a chance to see him. A few moments later eight deer walked casually through the field behind us. It was an exciting day.

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Grandchildren Almost Alligator Food? Cool Video from My Son in the Everglades

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Jesse is in Florida on a short vacation with his wife Anna and their six delightful children (our grandchildren). He writes: We stopped at a well attended visitor spot here in the Everglades. Just behind our van was a big pond. I checked it out and saw no danger, but I stayed close to the […]

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Living the Bible :-) Steve Eats a Grasshopper

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We are here at Qumran, the Dead Sea and the place where John the Baptist baptized. John the Baptist ate grasshoppers here (Matthew 3:4). Did Jesus eat them? Why not? It was clean food for the Jews specifically mentioned in the Bible. Leviticus 11:22 says they are “clean” and can be eaten. I promised the […]

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALk1z5euBxI

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Updated List of Birds & Animals I’ve Seen around our House

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The Eagle & the Noisy Crows — Thoughts on Dr. Beckwith and his Critics

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That’s Gross Grandpa!

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I just love grandkids. People joke around saying, "If I had known how fun grandkids would be, I would have had them first!" Today we went to my parents' house to celebrate my older brother's 65th birthday (he's joining the Catholic Church this Easter too!). All my grandkids were there so we went out and had adventures. […]

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One of our pleasures we enjoy no matter where we go is looking for new birds, learning their calls and songs, and studying their habits. No matter where we go there are birds. It has been my hobby as long as I can remember and Janet jumped right in too. Our kids were never too […]

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Newbies & Newts

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Grandkids are cool — little "newbie people" so interested in everything. OK, so we have an old golfcart and I drive the grandkids around exploring. Every two-track back into a field or woods is a "new territory" that needs to be conquered. Every rock has to be turned over, every bug caught and every tree identified. New […]

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