© 2000 Walter E. Gast
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The use of birds as Christian symbols is a relatively late development. Part of the reason for this is that birds mentioned in scripture can rarely be identified by species with any certainty, as a comparison of various Bible translations will show. For example, Isaiah 38:14 mentions a crane, a swallow and a dove in the King James Version, but these are translated swift, thrush and mourning dove in the New International Version. Biblical writers used characteristics such as "chirper" or "twitterer" rather than species to name birds, leaving translators to offer their best guess. The symbolism of bird species largely became codified during the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Christian art.

Because of its black plumage and melodious song: sin, temptation, the Devil

Because it crows early in the morning: watchfulness, vigilance; because of Jesus' prophecy in John 13:38: denial; a symbol of Christ's Passion

Because of a legend that cranes are appointed to keep watch over their king while he sleeps: vigilance, order, loyalty, good works

Because of various biblical stories: purity, peace; a symbol for the Holy Spirit

Because of a legend that eagles periodically renew their plumage and youth: new life, resurrection; because of the belief that eagles always leave half their prey to birds that follow: generosity; a symbol of John the Evangelist

Because they are ruthless hunters: evil thoughts or deeds (the wild falcon); because they can be tamed and their hunting instincts turned toward the good: conversion, holy living (the domesticated falcon)

Because they eat thistles and thorns: a symbol of Christ's Passion

Because of a legend that the Capitoline geese saved Rome from the Gallic invasion: providence and vigilance

Because it gathers its chicks: the solicitude of Christ

Because it sings only when flying toward heaven: humility, esp. of the priesthood

Because it hides itself in darkness: Satan; because it hunts alone: solitude, esp. in prayer; also wisdom

From Jeremiah 17:11: deceit, theft; also used as a symbol for the church and of truth

Because of a legend that its flesh does not decay: immortality, resurrection; because of the "eyes" in its tail: the Church; because of its strutting: vanity, pride

Because of a legend that it feeds its young with its own blood: the Atonement, the Eucharist

Because of a legend that it immolates itself only to rise renewed: the Resurrection

Because of a Jewish legend that its once-white plumage was turned black when it failed to return to the ark, and because it feasts on spoiled flesh: the Devil

Because they are the most common of birds: the lowly

Because it announces the coming of spring: vigilance, piety, chastity, the Annunciation

Because it hides itself in the mud during winter: the Incarnation; because of its return in the spring: resurrection

Because its pecking undermines the health of trees: heresy, the Devil