Reflections on Thriving: A Song Set Free

By Gregory Keller, Ph.D., Professor of Biology; Chair, Department of Life, Health and Physical Sciences

The Eurasian Redwing Thrush is nondescript, any way you cut it. Modest. Unremarkable. Ordinary. Enter any other synonym for “plain-looking” here, and that’s our bird. Its unassuming plumage appears like that of a young American Robin: brown, streaked, a touch of rust on its sides (that often goes unnoticed because it’s so unremarkable), with no plumage accessories or iridescent flair.

But as an ecologist and ornithologist, I know that the Redwing Thrush, like every other species, is defined more deeply not by its appearance, but by its relationships, behaviors and habits. A bird that survives the winters of Iceland, with the snow, and the ice, and the wind, and the snowy icy wind, the Redwing manages to eke out a quiet living on important fruit resources and an occasional unlucky garden invertebrate.

Then, as the photoperiod extends a few more minutes each day, the inconspicuous thrush melts the Icelandic birchwoods in the summer with a flourish of ethereal song that can only be described as descript. Immodest. Remarkable. Extraordinary. Enter any other synonym for amazing, and that’s our bird. With its relentless melodious bird song, the multiple harmonics and layers with which a string quartet would struggle, the Redwing reinforces relationships with mates, offspring, and adversaries.

A small bird in harsh tundra environment, the Redwing declares its territory for 22 hours a day in the Icelandic summer where it thrives: searching for prey, avoiding predators, building nests, finding mates, laying eggs, raising chicks, battling rivals, and beating the elements. It is glorious.

Like the Icelandic thrush, there are seasons when we might find ourselves quietly surviving. Frozen by the weight of our world’s challenges or perhaps wind-whipped by the grind of work or the responsibilities of parenting, we might endure, inconspicuous and unassuming, just waiting for the thaw. Our songs are quiet, our surroundings dark and cold.

But the world eventually ushers in new light and warmer days, and we start to see that punctuated between times of surviving can be magnificent seasons of thriving. Thriving isn’t synonymous with easy; after all, the Redwing’s seasons of thriving still involve avoiding Arctic foxes and beating the ice and wind. But these are times of peace, strength, exploration—when we can deeply experience God’s goodness in our relationships, our communities, and our contributions at work and home. They are remarkable, melodious.

For the Redwing and for us, thriving is often preceded by periods of surviving. But how glorious when sounds of the whipping winter winds are replaced by complex harmonies, when a song is set free from silence.