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I saw venison on the menu so, of course, I had to order it – knowing that the only deer in Africa is the romantically named Barbary stag (an elk/red deer variant) that lives at the complete opposite end of this vast and beautiful continent. The venison turned out to be ostrich. It was delicious. 

I am here on university business, overnight in Johannesburg on my way to a project workshop in stunningly wonderful Botswana. Given my teaching, and my scattered-brain baseline, and needs of the project, I have no time for an adventure into the bush. I did that last time I was here. We justified a photo safari to the University as essential fact-finding for our mission to build a relationship with conservation interests in Botswana. Whatever else happens to me in my gifted life, the low-bid (University of Wisconsin policy) photo safari will remain an absolute highlight. The abundance and diversity of large mammals is, well, heaven for a biologist. 

Checking out at the airport hotel, I noticed a bird outside the window behind the helpful desk person. It was a rock dove, or rather, the common pigeon that anyone reading this probably knows. It lives in your parks and cities. It craps on your iconic statues.

Here again after several years and having arrived after dark last evening, the very first animal I see in this exotic (to me) place is one that is probably among the most familiar.

On the runway there was an elegant blue crane, and on the wing-tips of the South Africa Airlink plane, a stylized sunbird (double crested?) and both are signature species of sub-Saharan Africa. I am pounding out this post on the back deck of a hotel in Maun (Botswana) surrounded by wonderful weirdo birds with wonderful weirdo bird calls. I am eager to go get my binoculars begin exploring the free “birds of southern Africa” app that I downloaded to begin learning about them. 

Last time I was here, a maintenance issue forced me to kill an afternoon on the concourse of the airport in Gaborone (capital of Botswana) when I noticed birdy movements in the rafters and then picking through the leavings under the chairs in the waiting area. Sneaking up on it, I found it was a house sparrow! The same scrappy little tramp that visits me a world away at UW’s Memorial Union to eat the potato-chip scraps and brat-bun pieces that I toss its way. A native of Europe, the house sparrow now has a global distribution, aided by humans deliberately in some cases. It’s an interesting story for another time.

I think about this a lot, though. Many, maybe most, wildlife biologists are attracted by opportunities to study, conserve, interact, or know about dramatic and exotic animals. I am too. Indeed, a vital part of the Botswanan economy is built upon tourist dollars that interest in its abundant and wonderfully diverse wildlife generates. 

Later I keyed out the exquisite African paradise-flycatcher and the handsome blacksmith lapwing, and the blue waxbill, and others from a short walk behind the hotel and a casual effort. And the calls of the black cuckoos. Wow. 

To paraphrase a beloved hard-scrabble troubadour, it’s a big ‘ole birdy world out there. 

But the pigeon stays with me too. And the sparrows and chickadees, and the deer and the squirrels. . . How privileged I am that a wintery tree-full of northern cardinals in my flowering crab is routine. (And I’ll argue that the relative subtlety of the females’ plumage is the more beautiful!) These common animals require a little more of us given our fascination with the new and exotic. I think that’s a shame. More and more, and the more I learn of the mysteries and complexities of their life histories, the more grateful I am for their presence in my day to day – the life they give to my literal backyard.

And that pigeon. Mark Wallace, in his book (When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World) examines the language and biology and identifies the common pigeon as the species that hosted the animal enfleshment of the Holy Spirit in Luke 3.

We would, perhaps, prefer a snow white dove in all of its fantastical feathery purity – a thing that we manufacture out of our preference for the way we think things should be. The white dove is a genetic anomaly, though. A thing out of place and time – a thing produced through selective breeding and domestication.

The reality is more earthy. More dusty corn-cribs and sooty cities than shafts of light splitting the gloom. The reality likely picked at the garbage in ancient Palestine and filled its crop with waste grain spilled at the margins along the roadway. But notice the iridescence in its plumage. The reality is more ubiquitous, following our species around the globe living in close association to the point of nuisance and insistence. 

I like that I know that now – and that that’s the association I carry.

Header photo by Lenstravelier on Unsplash
African Paradise-flycatcher photo, Asif N Kahn, License:

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The rock dove on the shoulder of Our Lord. I love it. (or on his head: one of my Sunday School kids ventured that it was on his shoulder as being closer to his heart.) They are here too in Muscat, Oman, on the roof right in my sight. The crows are very different here. And the little birds won’t sit long enough for me to get a good sighting. I agree with you on the female cardinal plumage. One winter in Ontario I had seven couples at my feeder.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Someone introduced me to the Merlin app, which identifies birds and their calls. Now I notice them much more and appreciate them. I never knew that that beautiful two-tone whistle on a crisp winter day is a chickadee! Thank you for taking us across the ocean and to our own backyards today.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    And thanks to you, that’s the association I will carry. With gratitude for your writing. The writing itself reveals the lyrical spirit of what you so beautifully care for, care about. Ya can’t tell the difference between the dancer and the dance.

  • Al Schipper says:

    We escaped Michigan for a Florida time out. Sitting now, reading your blog, on an enclosed screen porch and four (yes-4) Sandhill cranes flew by with their so distinctive pre-historic call. So earthy and I was renewed. Thanks.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Pigeons are indeed incredible animals not often getting the credit they deserve!

    This post today is quite fitting as it is being reported that the rather small numbered dusty tetraka (Crossleyia tenebrosa) was re-discovered in Madagascar as not being extinct.

    There is joy and grace in both the common and unique.

  • Colleen Bazuin says:

    Tim, I have a bird story, a sort of back on the ranch . . . Heading south a couple days ago on 36th Ave approaching Port Sheldon I came to a stop to watch two wild turkeys sparing on the side of the road. I’m glad I stopped because one of them suddenly darted across the road. Thank you for your posts. I enjoy them!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Among all the inherited “treasures” realized from downsizing and divesting of my mother-in-law’s estate,
    is the book (which I probably gave her) Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, by Debbie Blue (Abingdon, 2013. It’s about birds; it’s about God and grace and scripture. I immediately recalled it upon reading Van Deelen’s essay. Time for a re-read–especially as we have been enjoying observing our winter woodpeckers, nuthatches, and cardinals sharing the feeder outside our kitchen window. And the sparrows, too.

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