For the Birds Radio Program: The Souls of Birds

Original Air Date: Aug. 29, 1997

Do birds have a soul? (3:55) Date confirmed

Audio missing


Ever since my kids and I hooked into the Internet, I’ve been getting into discussions about the pros and cons of cyberspace. When national humor columnist Dave Barry married a woman he met through America Online, one of my outdoor writer friends was shocked, telling me he thought email and chat rooms are too impersonally technological for establishing genuinely meaningful relationships with anyone. But as a writer myself, I think email and chat rooms can provide perfect opportunities for rich communication with others. I’ve made several close friends online and taken part in meaningful discussions with people around the country through this electronic magic.

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve had anywhere lately was about whether birds have souls, and this was online with my friend Chris Durkin, who lives in Philadelphia. It all started in a chat room organized for live discussions of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” program during last week’s “Book Club of the Air.” This time the radio topic was Catcher in the Rye, and the discussion in our chatroom worked its way to the movie “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which Will Smith’s character has a long monologue about Salinger. I’d never seen the movie but Chris said it was a good one, so I rented it this weekend.

It was a great movie, but its view of humanity was so bleak that I emailed Chris:

Seeing this kind of movie, and realizing that I often share this bleak outlook, is one of the reasons I retreat to birds so often. They are always real. There is no pretense with birds, no materialism, no angst. They just are. Honest and vivid and true. Babies are born honest and true. What happens to us as we grow up? Birds don’t lose their souls in growing up. Why do so many people?

Chris wrote back:

Animals are true because they have no imaginations to make them wonder what else might be. Really, they are just biological machines. I think all living things are pretty amazing and fascinating. I can’t be the kind of person who says, “Why can’t we be more like them,” though. The fact is, birds never have souls in the first place. It’s the growing of a soul that leads to the judgments and choices that only humans can make. Only humans are capable of wisdom, but by the same token, only humans are capable of foolishness. I think the progression in life, from birth onward, goes from innocence to foolishness to wisdom. Most people just don’t make the entire journey.

Now I can’t believe that animals are biological machines any more than I can believe that internet communication is barren and impersonal, but it sure was fun debating the issue. I especially liked the way Chris closed his discussion:

Innocence is refreshing. That’s why birds and babies give us so much comfort. Maybe the key to wisdom is recapturing the essence of innocence.

We will never know for sure whether birds have souls or whether they simply help us heal and renew our own souls. But the struggle to find answers to questions like this is part of what makes us human, and the internet is a beautiful tool for helping us in this struggle, connecting us with kindred spirits from far away, and giving us food for thought and nourishment for our souls.