Birds of Prophetic Doom, VIrginia Holmgren

Twice in Bible passages, the prophets rely on a naming of birds of eerie cry or lonely wasteland wandering to help their listeners picture a scene of utter desolation. Beasts may be named, toowolves, jackals, dragonsbut the birds alone could set the listeners shivering in remembered awe as they pictured the sort of lonely place where they themselves had heard owls hoot and bittern croak, seen vultures gathering beside sun-bleached bare bones.

Note: In these quotations, we have left the names of the birds untranslated since the author translates and identifies the birds in the text.

The ka'ath, named first in both warnings, is uncertain but it would surely be the stalking scavenger, the marabou, rather than the pelican named in some old translations. The cormorant, which may well have shared the name, might also be a bird of doom, because of its black feathers.

Isaiah 34:11
Isaiah 34:11

Kippod, twice named also, means the "the bristler," and several early translators mistook it for the porcupine or hedgehog. But birds bristle, too, thought they do not have spiny quills, and when they are angry enoughor frightened enoughtheir feathers stand on end in fearsome array. The bittern bristles not only in threat or fear, but every time he brings out that deep-toned croak that echoes across the silent marsh like a sudden voodoo drumbeat. So of all the birds he is surely the "bristler," and his solitary ways second his impact as omen of doom and destruction.

When you take up bittern watch in some lonely marsh you may think you're hearing a suction pump instead of a wild bull. First there is an ominous sucking in of breath to make you imagine a giant pulling his boots out of the ooze, and then a booming drumbeat, certainly no sound you can duplicate with ordinary word. If you can hear your first bittern while you are standing alone in a lonely place, and not want to turn and run, then you must have a clear conscience indeed.

To top it off, the bittern's mottled feathering and long neck enable it to pose in veritable duplication of waving marsh grass, so that you can look right at it and not see it is there. Then suddenly it moves, seeming to materialize out of thin air like any ghostone more reason why the prophets of old thought their listeners might tremble at a world turned into a haunt for the bristler…

owlYanshuf, the horned owl, could be a bird of doom as owls have been in all places and times. Oreb and ya'annah, the next two birds of doom in Isaiah's warning are [the] raven and ostrich. Lilith — which is also the folk name for a certain witch or hagmight be the ghostly barn owl or the pale Hume's tawny owl that lives in the desert. The last name on the list — dayyoth — is surely the plural of da'ah, the kite, another scavenger. But the next to last is a name that gives translators considerable trouble, for kippoz is listed among the birds but seems to mean "snake" or "darter."

If you have followed bird trails through the Florida Everglades or other southern swamps and marsh country, you will immediately picture the dark feathers and sinewy neck of Anhinga anhinga, actually known as both snakebird and darter. It does look like a snake, for often only the head and neck come thrusting out from dangling vines or showing above the waves. And "darter" is certainly the one word to describe the sudden thrusting of [its] slim dagger beak as the anhinga spears an unwary fish for its dinner.

Like the bittern, the anhinga is a bird of lonely places and eerie ways that seems like magic to watchers who do not understand bird life. It can soar on wide wings like an eagle or a hawk, hang there riding the air currents like a vulture, dive underwater like a cormorant, and paddle like a duck or deflate to instant submersion. In tropic lands all around the world, the anhinga has been counted a bird of special omen. Surely it is a more fitting denizen for Isaiah's land of desolation than the owls…

Zephaniah 2:14
Zephaniah 2:14

Zephaniah, in repeating the same forecast of doom added another name, the kol, the voice. Of course this could be any ghostly sound, even the wind, but it also could be the blue roller, known by almost this same word in Israel today. The roller's voice issues forth from its beautiful blue throat in an unbeautiful crow-like croakin fact, "blue crow" or "blue rook" are some of its nicknamesand like any corvine croak it s to carry an ominous overtone. Also the roller is a bird that keeps itself in lonely places.


From: Virginia C. Holmgren, Bird Walk through the Bible, Copyright © 1972 by Dover Publications (Mineola, NY) pages 68, 70-72. By permission of the publisher. This book is currently out-of-print.

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