Long tales –

On long-tailed tits (a devotional)

long-tailed tit

30th August, 2020.

Out walking with Rupert and the dogs after ‘virtual’ church, coats on for the first time in weeks, sadness creeping in as summer peters out, and the long cold months loom.  Daily dog walks will still be needed when this drizzle is replaced with downpours, and blue skies but a memory.  Soon a family of long-tails flies over us and into a high hawthorn bush. We can hear their flock singing for another hundred metres, filling the lane with their joyful and distinctive si-si song.  The absence of many migrant summer birds makes a way for this song to be heard; we’ve walked this lane daily, but now that autumn approaches we can tune in to them, in a way we haven’t for months.  Autumn has some advantages that I’m glad to be reminded of!  The long-tails chatter constantly to stay in touch with each other, and in winter will roost together at night to keep warm, huddling tightly together in a row.

These small birds always bring me joy.  They look imbalanced, with their compact round bodies and unnecessarily long tails, added for the sheer fun of it I assume, like a child’s drawing of exaggerated proportions.  Small, silver dessert spoons of the hedgerows, diving up and over, apparently enjoying the space and each other.

These birds speak of community to me like no other.  For the first time since childhood, I’ve heard the cuckoo this summer, and from my open kitchen door; it’s appreciated for its novelty and disparaged for its usurping behaviour.  By contrast, the long-tail reflects the caring nature of God that we are meant to imitate ourselves.  In that flock of a likely twenty birds, only a few will be ‘true’ parents.  Many will have lost their own nest, and these birds use their energies to help feed the young of other long-tails; a typical nest will contain anywhere between eight and fifteen hatchlings, far too many for even the most hardworking of parents.  The ‘helper’ birds ensure the success of the families in the group.

How often the role of helping seems second-rate to us in whatever walk of life.  We want the role, the position, perhaps even the acclaim.  (We’ve all had at least one of those moments, if we think hard enough and are honest with ourselves.)   These contented little birds remind us to quietly get on with the work we see around us, supporting those who need us in whatever way we can.

That this behaviour is second nature to them, a distinctive part of who they are, is not accidental on the Lord’s part.  I imagine he delights in us discovering these small signs that he’s woven throughout his creation.  These birds are well worth researching further, just for the satisfaction of understanding something of the completeness and perfection of God’s planning; their bottle-shaped nests alone, sewn together with cobwebs, filled with around 1,500 feathers and given an expanding neck so the fledglings can emerge, is worthy of a good half-hour of your time.

But it is their kindness that I’ll always return to in my mind. As Christians we know we should be merciful because we have been shown mercy.[1]  It’s something we’re all called to, though some will particularly connect with the idea, perhaps because God has especially gifted them to show mercy; the Greek word for this spiritual gift is ‘eleeo’.  These people will be inclined to demonstrate patience and compassion toward the hurting.  They are equipped for the long-haul, and will stand by those who need them, for as long as it takes.  They will be empathetic, and are acting out a part of God’s character, weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15).  They may not feel they are doing much, perhaps being a listening ear and a praying presence in someone’s life, but they are a lifeline and much needed in the church.  If you’ve often wondered what your spiritual gift is, perhaps this is yours!  Being a helper certainly isn’t a second-rate occupation, as the long-tailed tits will show you – it can make the very difference to someone’s survival.  And it’s always worth noting what metaphors in nature resonate with you especially – there must be a reason why…


For more on the Gift of Mercy visit the following websites:




[1] ‘Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Matthew 18:33.

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