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A little bird told me . . .

We love them when they sing, bringing birdsong into our early mornings, their songs telling others that they survived the night. We love them in the evening when their songs are quieter, a call and response, as if saying “good-night”.  We dislike them when their droppings dirty our cars, walkways, patio furniture.  A wild turkey once parked itself on the hood of my car, refusing to leave no matter how much I yelled and waved.  Yet I still enjoy watching the wild turkeys boldly marching in a straight column up my street, oblivious to the cars lined up waiting for them to pass.  What is it about birds that pique our interest, our fears, our fascination? 


The soaring freedom of their flight, their ability to inhabit earth and sky . . . birds symbolize the human and cosmic spirit; the belief that birds are souls and represent goodness and joy.  Birds play a role in many creation myths, endowed with celestial and earthly powers.  Another belief is that birds communicate with divinities and bring messages from them (thus, “a little bird told me”).


Birds represent wisdom and intelligence; early Shamans wore feathers and bird masks so that they could “fly” to higher levels of knowledge – far from our modern uncomplimentary “bird-brained”.  In Hinduism, people believed that some birds are holy and symbolize truthfulness and purity.  In Asia, birds are seen as messengers from the spirit world and a reminder of our ancestors.  In some early cultures they served as messengers or signs from higher powers that led tribes and nations to new sources of food, shelter, and other necessities.


Eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds of prey became bearers of both good news and death. In many cases, these birds served as messengers from the gods carrying either their blessings or punishments. The Ancient Greeks believed that eagles represented Zeus, king of the gods. Other cultures believed hawks to be messengers from the underworld.  Birds featured in old English folklore have often been seen as omens of death or misfortune.


We frequently see birds, or abstract representations of birds in folk art. The meanings attributed to different bird species have evolved over centuries of folklore, ancient traditions, and rituals.  These connotations have, in most cases, led the artist to depict the bird that best represents the artist’s intended message.


Eagles are symbols of fertility, life, and power.  Many Native American communities considered eagles, especially the bald eagle, to be sacred animals, a symbol of wisdom, bravery, and a connection to the spiritual realm. 


Owls symbolize wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence. They are often depicted as teachers of other animals, such as in Aesop’s fables. The owl can also be a symbol of death or witchcraft. In Native American folklore, the owl is believed to be a spiritual guide that can help humans attain higher levels of consciousness


The Dove represents peace and love. To Christians, the dove is a symbol of salvation and peace. Other religious people view the dove as a symbol of purity and gracefulness. In some cultures, because of its symbol of goodness, the dove is used to ward off evil spirits, while other cultures view the dove as a symbol of freedom.


Phoenix is a mythical bird. The lore is that every few hundred years, when the Phoenix feels its time has come, it builds a pile of sticks and sets itself on fire. When the rising sun ignites the flames, the Phoenix dies, and from its ashes an even more beautiful bird arises. The Phoenix is also associated spiritual enlightenment and eternal life. It is believed that Phoenix is associated with the Sun, and therefore it represents the renewal of life after death.


The Blue Jay is native to North America. It is known for its tenacity, determination, patience, intelligence, and aggressiveness. It symbolizes the ability to use any situation to one’s benefit. This comes from the bird’s ability to build nests in any tree or environment that is available.


The Robin, the quintessential early bird, is known for its end-of-winter appearance, cheery songs, and red/orange-colored breast. While a robin is associated with new growth, ancient Europeans considered the robin to be a symbol of divine sacrifice and rebirth.


In Ancient Rome, the Cardinal was thought of as a spiritual messenger sent by those who died and went to heaven. To Native Americans, the cardinal has strong ties to other realms and acts as a messenger from the ancestors. Several southeastern tribes associated cardinals with the sun and as a symbol of good fortune. 


So, when you see a bird in that piece of folk art, look for the deeper meaning; think about the message the artist is trying to convey.  A hawk gliding overhead, the blue jay’s clamorous squawking, the blue bird of happiness dropping a gift on your car (it’s supposed to be good luck).


Here are some examples of birds depicted in folk art.  Can you discern their meanings?

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