Behold how, through the nature of birds, we can teach the nature of the religious life. Of the kite It is weak in strength and in flight – a puny bird, mollis avis, from which it gets its name, milvus. It is, however, a bird of prey, always preying on domestic birds. As we read in the book of Etymologies of Isidore: ‘The kite, milvus, derives its name from mollis volatu, weak in flight. For the kite is a weakly bird.’ The kite signifies those who are tempted by effete pleasures. It feeds on corpses, as pleasure-seekers take delight in carnal desires. It constantly hovers around kitchens and meat-markets so that if pieces of raw meat are thrown out from them, it can seize them quickly. In this the kite represents to us those who are motivated by concern for their stomach. Those who are of this world, therefore, seek pleasure, frequent meat-markets and gaze with longing at kitchens. The kite is timid in big matters, bold in small. It dares not seize wild birds but customarily preys on domestic ones. It lies in wait to seize their young and when it encounters unwary youngsters, it kills them quickly. In the same way, the effete and pleasure-seeking seize infants of tender years, in the sense that they teach the more simple and undiscerning their own habits and lead them into perversion. As kites deceive the unwary by flying over them slowly, the pleasure-seekers lead the young astray by flattering them with sweet words. See how birds who lack the capacity of rational thought instruct through examples of evil conduct men who are experienced and intelligent.
Of the parrot India alone produces the bird called the parrot, green in colour, with a deep-red neck and a large tongue, broader than those of other birds, with which it utters distinct words; so that if you did not see it, you would think it was a man talking. Characteristically, it greets you by saying in Latin or Greek: ‘Ave’ or ‘Kere!’ – ‘Hail!’ It will learn other words if you teach it. Which explains the lines: ‘Like a parrot, I will learn other people’s names from you, but this I have learned by myself to say: Hail, Caesar!’ (Martial, Epigrams, 14, 73). The parrot’s beak is of such hardness that if it falls from a height on to a rock, it takes the impact on its mouth, using it as base of uncommon toughness. Its skull is so thick, that if ever you have to admonish it with blows to learn – for it tries hard to speak like men – you should beat it with an iron rod. For when it is young, up to two years of age, it learns what it is told very quickly and keeps it firmly in mind; when it is a little older, it is forgetful and is difficult to teach.
Of the ibis There is a bird called the ibis; it purges its stomach with its beak. It feeds on the eggs of snakes and on carrion, and from them carries back food to its young, which they eat with great pleasure. Yet it fears to go into water, because it does not know how to swim, but walks about near the shore day and night, looking for dead fish of a small size or corpses which have been washed up. The ibis signifies carnal men who feed, as it were, on deadly deeds, on which they nourish themselves to the condemnation of their wretched souls. But you, a Christian, reborn by water and the holy spirit, enter the spiritual waters of the mysteries of God and thereafter eat the purest of food of which the apostle spoke, saying: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace longsuffering etc’ (see Galatians, 5:22). If the sun and moon did not send forth their rays, they would give no light. If birds did not spread their wings, they could not fly. Thus, you, O man, if you do not protect yourself with the sign of the cross, and spread the wings of twofold love, you will not be able to pass through the tempests of this world to that most peaceful haven of the heavenly land. ‘And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed’ (Exodus, 17:11).