Birds are something truly special. What other group of animals has such a widespread and beloved hobby dedicated to simply looking at them. There are birds on every continent and just about every human civilization that’s ever existed has grown up in a landscape filled with birds. It is no wonder, then, that so many cultures have assigned a great deal of meaning to various types of birds. (1)
From mythology to art to poetry, birds inspire the mind and lift the heart. Doves are a major symbol within the Bible. Ravens are hugely significant within Norse mythology. One of the chief gods of the Ainu people of Japan is an owl. Countless songs and stories from around the globe pay tribute to the beauty and majesty of birds. (2)
So what is it that makes birds so special? Do we feel uplifted by their incredible power to fly? Are we entranced by their enchanting singing voices? Do their beautiful feathers capture our hearts? Yes, yes, and yes! Birds are so impactful, in fact, that many different cultures around the world see them as messengers from heaven itself.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the general meanings connected with birds as well as some of the more impactful bird-related myths and beliefs from around the world. When it comes to birds, there is simply too much to say than we can cover here, so be sure to check out our article catalog for information about specific types of birds. From chickens to chickadees, we’ve covered all sorts of birds in detail!
Table of contents
- Bird Symbolism and Meaning
- Bird Native American Symbolism
- Bird Christianity Symbolism
- Bird Celtic Symbolism
- Birds in Dreams
- Bird Encounters and Omens
- Bird Mythology and Folklore
- Bird Spirit Animal
- Bird Totem Animal
- Bird Power Animal
- Bird Tattoo Meaning
Bird Symbolism and Meaning
Birds in general tend to symbolize broad ideas like love and freedom. The bird’s ability to fly is often connected with the limitless heights of imagination and possibility.
Birds are often connected with emotions. Because birds tend to form strong bonds with their mates and devote much attention to raising their young, birds are often symbolic of community, family, parenthood, and romance. Baby birds symbolize innocence and youth whereas parent birds symbolize guardianship and protection. Birds’ nests symbolize the home.
The following table lists some specific birds that tend to be laden with meaning and some of the common meanings connected with them. Most of these birds have been covered on our site, so we’ve included links to those articles for those who want to learn more.
|Bird Species||Symbolism, meaning and association|
|1||Cranes||Peace, blessings, good luck|
|2||Eagles||Courage, rebirth, power|
|3||Owl||Insight, wisdom, death|
|4||Swan||Light, romance, purity|
|5||Sparrow||Productivity, diligence, creativity|
|6||Peacock||Serenity, luxury, vanity|
|7||Nightingale||Anticipation, Love, Secrets|
|8||Hummingbird||Joy, Love, Healing|
|9||Falcons||Longevity, Victory, Nobility|
|10||Cardinal||Faith, balance, romance|
|11||Bluebird||Joy, honesty, harmony|
|12||Crow||Intelligence, curiosity, adaption|
Because birds are often kept as pets, birds may also symbolize domesticity and demureness. Caged birds might also symbolize status, as historically birds were expensive to own and keep. Birdcages are often connected with freedom and the joys of escaping one’s cage.
There are also a number of idioms and superstitions connected with birds in general as well as specific birds. It is common to use phrases like “killing two birds with one stone,” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The meanings of birds in these phrases vary wildly.
Bird Native American Symbolism
Native American mythology and folklore heavily features birds. For tribes from across the Americas, birds play a wide variety of roles with varying levels of significance. Many birds are connected with weather phenomena, and Native American mythology even includes a giant mystical bird known as the “Thunderbird.” The following myth demonstrates a connection between sparrows and weather phenomena.
One myth, for example, describes a beautiful but proud girl whose father was a great warrior. The girl was disinterested in male company and avoided marrying her many suitors by insulting their intelligence. When the loon courted her, the girl called him stupid and vain. When the fox courted her, the girl turned away and ignored him. Finally, the men of the village grew angry and tired of the girl’s insults. They asked the wily trickster Whirlwind to enact their revenge. Whirlwind, who had the magical ability to become invisible, blew over the girl and knocked her down. Enraged, the girl’s father had Whirlwind and his blind brother Rain banished from the village. Before very long, though, the people began to regret vanishing Whirlwind and Rain because the air was stagnant and the land was dry. They sent the bear to sniff out the brothers, but he couldn’t find them. They sent the fox but he failed too. Finally, the village chief sent the sparrow to find Whirlwind and Rain. The sparrow was clever so he tied a feather to a stick and held it. Then he flew in the direction from which the wind blew. After several days he found whirlwind and Rain sleeping in a cave. With great difficulty, the sparrow woke them up and convinced them to return. Flying ahead of Whirlwind, the sparrow went first to the sparrow village to tell them that Whirlwind and Rain would return to the land. The sparrows all celebrated. Then he went to the humans who were grateful and promised never to hunt his kind. So, to this day, the sparrows are not hunted and they are the first to know and celebrate when rainy weather is near. (3)
Another common theme in bird myths is sacrifice. Often, heroic birds are credited with selfless acts that impact the world. One such myth is used to explain how the bunting got its magnificent colors. According to one Native American myth, the Painted Bunting received its beautiful colors from the Great Spirit. This legend states that the Great Spirit was responsible for painting all of the birds in all of their many beautiful colors. He painted the Northern Cardinal bright red and he painted the Blue Jay in shades of brilliant blue. When he had finished there was just one drab gray bird left. Eager to finish, the Great Spirit reached for his paints and found that he did not have enough left to paint this poor little bird. Noticing the sadness on the bird’s face, the Great Spirit told it not to cry because he would make it the most beautiful and colorful bird of all. So, the Great Spirit used all of his remaining paint to give the Painted Bunting splashes of color. Instead of one or two fine colors, the Painted Bunting boasts bright red, blue, and green feathers which rival even the brightest of cardinals or the bluest of Blue Jays. (4)
Different Native American tribes also designate birds as their clan animal. While some clans decide to relate themselves to a specific type of bird, like the raven clan or the eagle clan, others choose to follow a more generalized approach. These clans include the following:
- The Fusualgi clan or Fuswvlke bird clan also known as the bird clan of the creek
- The Anijisqua bird clan or Antisiskwa clan also known as the bird clan of the Cherokees
- The feather clan of the Mi’kmaq tribe (5)
Bird Christianity Symbolism
Birds appear throughout the Bible in a variety of forms. Owls are mentioned on several occasions when a location as described as desolate or wild. Doves are used in Genesis to symbolize peace and hope. A dove retrieves the olive branch that signifies that the floodwaters have receded and Noah and the animals can leave the ark.
“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!”— Luke 12:24 (6)
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”— Job 12:7-9 (7)
Often, Bible verses concerning birds refer to one of two major themes. One being that God is the one who provides food and light and safety to the living creatures of this earth. The other similar theme is that God can be found throughout the beauty of nature. So, birds represent God’s hand in all of creation.
A large number of birds are listed in the Bible as unclean animals which are not fit to be eaten by mankind. Many birds appear only in this capacity.
Bird Celtic Symbolism
Birds in Celtic myths and stories often appear as denizens of the Otherworld. Thus, birds usually represent the supernatural and mysterious. Female characters, especially witches, are very often connected with birds.
The Welsh goddess Rhiannon is said to entertain guests in the Otherworld via her enchanting choir of songbirds. The Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes was even married to a woman who transformed into an owl. In that particular story, Lleu was cursed to be unable to have a wife out of all of the women in the world. So, his uncle who was the great magician, Gwydion, made a wife for Lleu out of a bunch of flowers. His new wife did not love Lleu and when she fell in love with another man, they conspired to kill Lleu. When Lleu was killed, he transformed into an eagle and was brought back to life by Gwydion. As punishment for her scheming, Blodeuwedd (which means flower-face) was transformed into an owl. (8)
In the Irish story of the Wooing of Etain, the beautiful Etain is coveted by an otherworldly suitor named Midir. She weds Midir but his jealous first wife casts a spell on her transforming her into a puddle of water, a worm, and finally a fly. Etain still loves Midir, but she is blown about by the winds until she is accidentally swallowed by her own mother who gives birth to her once more. In her new life, Etain doesn’t recognize Midir until he finds her and embraces her. At that moment, the two transform into swans and return to the Otherworld. (9)
The Morrigan is a witch-like figure in Irish mythology whop is connected with chaos, magic, victory, and sovereignty. The Morrigan is often depicted alongside crows or ravens.
Birds in Dreams
Birds in dreams can represent a huge variety of ideas or messages depending upon the context, the dreamer, and the type of bird. In general, birds tend to represent the spirit. Dreaming of a bird can be seen as a message from one’s subconscious or as a sign of what one desires most.
Dreaming of birds may also represent hope and freedom.
Bird Encounters and Omens
Treating birds as omens is an incredibly common practice that has occurred since ancient times. This practice is known alternatively as ornithomancy and augury. For ancient Romans, the behavior of birds was often seen as a signal from the gods. Bird augurs would watch for these signals and use them to predict the proper course of action. An eagle flying overhead might signify that the day was favorable for battle. Chickens vigorously eating their feed might indicate that the harvest goddess was pleased and would send a bountiful harvest. (10)
Birds have always been a part of our world. Encountering birds can be a really great reminder to appreciate the nature that surrounds you. Birds are everywhere and have managed to persist even in urban environments. They keep us connected with nature and remind us of our relationship with the natural world.
Bird Mythology and Folklore
There is no shortage of mythological stories, legends, folklore tales, superstitions, and beliefs regarding birds in the rich cultural history of the world. Bird symbolism in literature transcends the boundaries of borders.
The lore of birds is so rich and vast that much of this website is dedicated to it. Obviously, we can only cover so much in one short article. The following are some mythological birds who have a large impact on folklore and fairytales.
The phoenix is said to be a bird with 500 year life cycle. Once one life cycle is about to end, the bird spontaneously self-combusts, and from the ashes they are born again to begin their new life. The phoenix may date as far back as ancient Egyptian mythology.
The roc is an Arabic or Middle Eastern mythological bird of enormous size. The tales of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights depict Sinbad encountering one. References to the roc can also be found in the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Roman mythology speaks of Caladrius, a snow-white bird that usually resides within the homes of royalty. This pure bird can absorb illness and disease from sick people. The Caladrius flies up into the sun to incinerate the illness. However, if this miraculous bird turns its head away from a sick person, then that is a sure sign of its unavoidable death.
Bird Spirit Animal
Having a bird as your spirit animal indicates a great deal of empathy, intelligence, and selflessness. People with bird spirit animals tend to be community-builders who are devoted to their homes and families.
Every bird is different, however bird spirits tend to enjoy creative pursuits and love expressing themselves freely.
People with birds as their spirit animals tend to be dreamers, however they are often quite industrious as well. They set lofty goals and then work hard to achieve them. The bird spirit does not take no for an answer.
Bird Totem Animal
Bird totems are often associated with healing, insight, and enlightenment. A bird totem might be called upon during periods of change in order to help you choose the correct path.
The eagle totem is especially connected with courage, strength, wisdom, and leadership.
Bird Power Animal
The bird power animal is very often connected with perspective. Birds see things that we simply do not. They view the world from a “bird’s eye view” and may have a broader vision of the landscape than we ever will. During decision-making periods, the perspective of the bird power animal can be invaluable.
Birds have an array of unique virtues and talents. To truly understand them all, we would need to look at specific birds in detail. Check out our other symbolism articles where we do just that!
Bird Tattoo Meaning
Birds are popular choices for tattoos. A bird tattoo will have a different meaning depending upon the person, the at style, and the bird. Often, though, bird tattoos represent freedom, growth, transformation, healing, and creativity.
Swallows are a classic tattoo choice amongst sailors because they tend to represent safe passage.
Feather tattoos are often chosen to represent self-actualization, expression, and tranquility.
Birds have a massive impact upon culture throughout the world. Every single continent has birds and every civilization encounters them. These exquisite animals have become inseparable parts of human myths, arts, and stories since ancient times. It is easy to see why so many people devote so much time and attention to appreciating these incredible animals.