Skip to Content

What do birds symbolize to humans?

What do birds symbolize to humans?

Birds have held symbolic meaning for humans for thousands of years. Across different cultures, both ancient and modern, certain bird species have come to represent various concepts, ideas, and superstitions. Exploring the various meanings attached to different birds can reveal a great deal about humankind’s relationship with the natural world.

Freedom and Transcendence

One of the most common symbolic associations humans have with birds is the idea of freedom. The ability for birds to fly high above the constraints of the earth seems to represent a kind of boundless freedom that humanity admires. Seeing a bird soar through the open sky without limits gives us a sense of transcendence – as if the bird is rising above mundane concerns.

This is likely why birds like eagles or hawks are frequently used as symbols of power and nobility. Their high-flying freedom represents rising above the problems of the world. Similarly, seeing flocks of birds migrating vast distances symbolizes the human desire for travel and adventure in distant lands. We attach our own innate hopes and dreams onto the image of a bird in majestic flight.

Communication Between Realms

In many cultures, mythology, and folklore, birds are seen as messengers between earthly and spiritual realms. Their ability to fly positions them as intermediaries between the mundane and divine worlds. This could involve physical flights to sacred locations as well as metaphysical bridging between people and gods.

For example, in Greek mythology, the god Hermes (known as Mercury in Roman mythology) is depicted as wearing winged sandals and a winged hat while carrying messages from the gods to humans. Many Trickster gods in various folklores use bird forms to move between different levels of reality. This symbolizes how birds traverse the liminal spaces between Seen and Unseen realms. Their flight allows them to access heights where the divine dwell.

Culture Messenger Birds
Ancient Egypt Falcons
Norse Mythology Ravens
Hinduism Crows
Ancient Greece Eagles

Omens and Guidance

Related to their role as metaphysical messengers, birds have often been seen as sources of prophecy and omens. From the flight patterns of birds to their songs and appearance, many cultures looked to birds for spiritual guidance about the future or insight into the will of the gods. For example, the Roman practice of augury involved the divining of answers from the observed behavior of specific birds like eagles, crows, or vultures.

In the Abrahamic faiths as well, doves are noted as bringers of important divine messages. In the Biblical flood narrative, it is a dove that returns to Noah’s ark with an olive branch to show the receding of the floodwaters. For Christians, the dove came to symbolize hope, peace, and the Holy Spirit. Across cultures, humanity has looked skyward to the intuitive wisdom beyond, seeing birds as winged carriers of hidden knowledge.

Death and Rebirth

Scavenger birds that feed on carrion, like crows, ravens, and vultures, are frequently associated with themes of death and impermanence. Their dark plumage and consumption of decaying flesh cements them as ominous symbols in many cultures. Yet, birds feeding on death also represent the continuum of life through their role in breaking down waste and recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem.

As such, they can symbolize the interplay between life and death. The old makes way for rebirth of the new. This is likely why the phoenix – the mythical bird that resurrects from its own ashes – appears independently in mythologies across the ancient world from Egypt to Greece to China. The phoenix encapsulates the endless life cycle of death bringing new life.

Soul and Spirituality

Birds have commonly been depicted as embodiments of human souls, spiritual ideals, or supernatural virtues in mythology, folklore, and religious tradition:

  • In Christianity, the gentle dove represents the Holy Spirit.
  • In Hinduism, Garuda – the mystical bird deity – symbolized divine vision and wisdom.
  • In ancient Egypt, the Bennu bird – similar to the phoenix – embodied renewal after death.
  • In Greek myths, the nightingale represented devotion since it was said to sing even through giving its own lifeblood.
  • Cranes are a common emblem of longevity and marital happiness in Asian cultures.

Using birds to represent human souls, whether during life or the afterlife, can be seen across belief systems. Something about their ability to fly high towards the heavens while vocalizing intricately resonated with humanity as a metaphor for the human spirit.

Bird Symbolism in Culture and Art

Beyond religion and mythology, birds have featured heavily as symbols in culture, literature, and art over the centuries:


  • In the famous Old English epic Beowulf, ravens represent omens, fortune, and mindfulness of mortality with their feast on corpses.
  • Owl and cuckoo bird cries are used to signal unfortunate events in Shakespeare’s works like Julius Caesar and Othello.
  • In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling uses owls as messengers and representative of wisdom and insight.


  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe utilizes the raven as a harbinger of misery and loss.
  • In The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the eagle represents ambition and the human desire to expand horizons.
  • Shelley’s poem To a Skylark uses the skylark as an emblem of artistic creativity and freedom.


  • Eagles frequently appear in heraldry and coats of arms to denote courage, power, and military might – such as the seal of the United States.
  • Doves often signify love, gentleness, or sacrifice in religious themed artwork – as seen in Picasso’s Child Holding a Dove.
  • Ravens recur throughout Vincent van Gogh’s later paintings as representations of loneliness and his struggles with mental health.

Birds as Symbols of Ideas

Beyond specific mythical or cultural context, birds have come to represent broader conceptual ideas:

Bird Common Symbolism
Doves Peace, love, devotion
Eagles or Hawks Power, nobility, pride
Owls Wisdom, knowledge, discernment
Ravens or Crows Omens, destiny, misfortune
Cranes Longevity, marital bliss
Swans Beauty, grace, purity
Peacocks Vanity, ostentation, splendor
Phoenix Rebirth, renewal, immortality

Birds as National Symbols

Many countries have adopted native bird species to represent national pride and cultural heritage:

Country National Bird
United States of America Bald Eagle
United Kingdom Robin
France Gallic Rooster
Finland Whooper Swan
South Africa Blue Crane
Sri Lanka Emerald-Spotted Wood Dove
Philippines Philippine Eagle

Selecting birds like the fierce bald eagle or the regal lion emblazoned Gallic rooster tied ideas of national character to attributes symbolized by the birds. Shared cultural mythology around birds translates into nationalistic associations.


Across history, culture, mythology, religion, literature, and art – birds have amassed broad symbolic meanings for humans. Soaring overhead while vocalizing musically has made birds natural emblems of human aspirations. Their flight, songs, and behaviors rendered them mysterious yet relatable creatures that humanity imbued with our own ideals and values. With wings to traverse terrestrial and celestial realms, they have become symbols bridging the earthly and the divine.