Bird Symbolism: It’s Not Just “For the Birds”

birds flying over water main

Birds from ancient times impressed people with their beauty, ability to fly, intelligence, and value (including food, messengers, and sacrifices). Birds, in the process, also have many symbolic meanings. They can represent adventure, love, wisdom, peace and danger, different places and times of the year. Individual birds such as owls, cardinals, swallows, pigeons and doves, hummingbirds, and blue jays also have their own special meanings.

Symbolism “For the Birds”

The saying that something is “for the birds” is usually intended to suggest that it is useless or meant for gullible people. The origins go back to WWII military slang and concern birds pecking at manure (to phrase things more politely than many did) for seeds.  

We here at Symbolism Explained feel our avian (fancy word for birds) friends warrant more respect.  They can make fine pets (sorry, friendly home companions) and are rich in meaning.  

Birds are very American.  The bald eagle is our national bird, symbolizing authority, bravery, and the American West. 

The turkey, which Benjamin Franklin once deemed more respectable, symbolizes Thanksgiving, family, and home farms.  And, the American pastime (baseball) and for some an even more important game (football) have a lot of bird-related mascots.  

Birds often are believed to be omens, signs of good and bad things. Ancient Romans paid attention to the habits of birds, resulting in the word “inauspicious.” 

The word arises from “one who looks at birds.”  This was more pleasant than those who checked out animal livers.

Birds can symbolize bad things.  A “black swan” event is a rare thing, if not necessarily bad.  Vultures, however, usually symbolize bad things. 

Vultures feed off dead animals. Symbolically, a “vulture” is someone who takes advantage of people, and swoops in to attack the vulnerable.  

Birds overall symbolize a range of things such as nature, beauty, adventure, and a lot more.  Their ability to fly made them messengers of the gods.  Their beautiful song symbolizes romance.  And, their calls and shrieks can also symbolize danger and fill people with terror.  

Let us look at some specific birds that have a lot of symbolism.  Don’t “chicken out” or “fowl” it up.  You might have “egg on your face,” if you skip over all of the stuff you can learn.  

Learn about Donald Duck symbolism here.  

What Do Owls Symbolize (Who? Owls!)

I personally associate owls with that famous lollipop commercial where Mr. Owl is asked how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop.  The Internet can answer all these days.  But, before we had the World Wide Web, the owl, a symbol of wisdom, was the one to ask.

From ancient times, owls were known to be good hunters, able to see things in little light. Their large eyes also stood out to many observers.  This led owls to be known for their wisdom.  And, their habit of hunting at night also led people to associate owls with the night.  

The night is dark and scary.  Add that scary-sounding “hoot,” owls also became associated with scary things, even in horror movies.  A standard trope of movies is people hearing the hoot of an owl and being scared.  And, then people say “it is only an owl.”  A type of unfounded fear.  

Owls also had special associations.  Owls were associated with the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Owl became the logo of Wise Foods, the potato company.  And, a white owl symbolizes something magical, spiritual, and pure.  Sometimes, they are also symbols of doom.

If you wish to learn more about owls, check out this separate page.  

Cardinals: Redbird Symbolism

The cardinal is a familiar bird, often seen in backyards and at birdfeeders.  

Cardinals are known by their red plumage (fancy name for feathers) and distinctive songs.  Both male and female cardinals sing, particularly concerned about defending their mating territory.  Male cardinals are the most colorful; females are more a “dull reddish olive.” 

There is a connection between the cardinals (birds) and cardinals (Catholic clergy). The clergymen wear bright red robes, which gave the birds their name.  

Cardinals do not migrate; they can be seen year around.  Cardinals in winter time symbolize a moment of brightness and cheer in an otherwise dark and gloomy time.  

Cardinals singing is a symbol that spring has begun. Cardinals also symbolize rebirth, joy, good health, and hope.  The song of cardinals symbolizes music as well as romance, devotion, and love.  

Many sports teams have cardinal logos, including St. Louis (baseball) and Arizona (football).  

Cardinals can symbolize sports and places (including schools) they play. Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia have cardinals as their state bird.  

Seeing a cardinal, especially a bright red cardinal, is often seen as a sign of luck.  It can also be a message of special spiritual meaning when a cardinal visits your home.  

Read more about these songbirds here.

Swallows: Graceful Songbirds 

Swallows are common all over North America, from the warm Mexican border to the chilly Arctic.  Swallows in fact are present in every continent except Antarctica.

They are graceful songbirds, able to chase insects in the air.  Swallows often eat insects and other small animals that land on their wings.  They have a long forked tail.  

As songbirds, their song can symbolize love and romance as well as joy and good tidings.  Swallows migrate, so they also symbolize the coming of spring and the end of summer.  Swallows can also symbolize rebirth and resurrection, including Christ’s resurrection.  

Swallows can symbolize grace and elegance, their skillful flying impressing many. Shakespeare in Richard III spoke of “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”  The flight of a swallow is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible

Swallows are often around humans, including telephone wires and nesting around houses and farms.  Swallows are favorites of bird watchers of all types.  They come in various colors and each have their own song.  See, for example, this guide of various shades and sounds.  

Swallows and humans have long interacted, leading many beliefs.  The ancient Romans told of swallows used as messengers.  Koreans tell of a tale of gifts received for helping a swallow with a broken wing.  Hopi Indians believe swallows were essential to the first planting of corn.  

Swallows are often seen as good omens.  Sailors know the sight of swallows means they are near dry land.  The Chinese and Japanese also deem swallows good luck.   

For more about swallow symbolism check out this article.

Photo by Alistair Dent

Pigeons and Doves: Heavenly Symbols 

While writing this entry, I heard some birds singing.  In New York City, we have different types of feathered friends. If we had an official bird, it would be the pigeon.  

The Latin name for the pigeon is Columba livia (“dove” or ‘“bird of leaden or blue-gray color”).  The bird’s name originally meant “chirping bird,” but both its Latin name, and common names (such as “rock dove”) show that pigeons and doves are closely related or are actually the same bird.  

Pigeons live worldwide except in polar regions and the Sahara Desert.  They might be the first domesticated bird.  Pigeons have special homing abilities, making them not only ideal for racing (my dad raced pigeons), but to serve as messengers.  Yes, many people also find them tasty.  

Pigeons in the 21st century symbolize the urban areas they frequent. They often have a bad reputation, deemed a sort of dirty homeless type of bird.  The negative connotation is also seen in slang such as “stool pigeon” (a traitor) and “pigeon toed” (like the toes of a pigeon).  

Pigeons symbolize the poor and needy. A common ancient sacrifice cited in the gospels was “a pair of doves or two young pigeons,” because the poor were often unable to afford doves.  Pigeons were honored by a range of ancient religions and cultures.  Many still realize their value.  

Doves are basically fancy pigeons.  Doves (often white) have an ancient symbolism of purity, gentleness, and peace. A “dove” is someone who supports peace and opposes war. Doves have a special Christianity symbolism, including representing Jesus’ baptism.   

Photo by Bryan Hanson

Hummingbirds: Tiny Speed Demons

Hummingbirds are tiny (about two to eight inches long), colorful, thin-beaked birds. They are solely found in the Americas.  Some varieties migrate while some species do not.

“Hummingbirds”  get their name from the humming noise that occurs when they flap their wings very fast.  They also have a variety of calls and some do not just “hum,” but also sing.  

Hummingbirds have a special ability to fly not only forward but also straight up and down, sideways, and backward and to hover in front of flowers as they obtain nectar and insects from them.  Hummingbirds have a long slender bill to feed off the nectar.  

The wings beat very fast.  Hummingbirds are tiny birds, but their wings can flap 50 and 200 flaps per second.  They can dive sixty miles an hour and fly thirty miles an hour. 

Hummingbirds symbolize things very small and fast. They also symbolize natural wonders, even in comparison to many other amazing birds.  Hummingbirds can also symbolize agility, courage, diligence and hard work, being full of energy and good health, and beauty.  

Hummingbirds symbolize the New World, being only found in the Americas.  They can symbolize how time is fleeting, how we are always quickly moving on.  

Male hummingbirds are basically players; they mate and move on. First, the male birds show off to impress the females, who choose their mates.  The males are the most colorful birds.  

Various Native Americans have myths about hummingbirds, including the Aztecs, whose war god is named “Huitzilopochtli” (Hummingbird of the South). Warriors, after death, might come back as hummingbirds.   Other people think of hummingbirds like angels or magical fairies.  

Check out this article for more on these tiny wonders.

Bluejays: Are They Really Blue?!

I am writing this entry during baseball season (and after a bad Mets loss — I digress), so as we finish up our discussion of birds, what immediately comes to mind is the Toronto Blue Jays.  The name was obtained via a contest; “blue” was already a popular symbol for local sports fans.  

Jays (they make “jay jay” sounds) are related to crows and magpies. They live in various parts of the United States and Canada.  Blue jays are migratory birds.  They are familiar sights in urban areas.  Blue Jays love acorns; the acorns they store help repopulate oak trees

Blue jays are actually sort of con artists. Their feathers do not really have blue pigment; natural blue is rare in nature.  Blue jays’ wings have air pockets that absorb all colors except for blue.  If you observe the feathers in the right conditions, they look brown.  

Blue jays are very intelligent birds, including using ants for reasons not totally clear to scientists (“anting”).  Blue jays can learn to use tools, including pieces of newspaper. 

Blue jays also practice patience when looking for food.  They are very good mimics, able to sound like the much more ferocious hawk, who are their adversaries.  Blue jays have also been known to mimic cats and owls.  They symbolize smarts with a touch of guile. 

Blue jays are symbols of loyalty and love.  They mate for life and male jays help females build their nests, including with paper, rags, string.  Blue jays can symbolize hearth and home and would make a good home decorators.  Do Blue Jays know feng shui?  

No Bat Symbolism in this Article

We have discussed various bird-related symbolism, including focusing on certain individual types of birds.  You might be able to think of many more, such as the symbolism of domestic birds such as chickens or exotic birds such as ostriches. 

Just remember a bat is not a bird!

People have had a special relationship with birds from the very beginning.  Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” even was able to do so in prison.  So, it is not surprising we have found birds rich in symbolism.  Anyone who says otherwise is truly “for the birds.”

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