The Bible contains approximately three hundred references to birds, scattered from Genesis to Revelation. The Hebrew people's keen awareness of bird life is reflected in the numerous different Hebrew and Greek names used for birds in general or for specific birds. Although bird names are difficult to translate, many birds of the Bible can be identified from the descriptions of them given in the Scriptures.
General Terminology Several general terms for birds occur in the Bible. In the Old Testament the Hebrew term ‘oph, the most general term for birds, is used collectively to refer to flying creatures or fowl, as well as to winged insects. The term ‘oph occurs repeatedly in the creation narrative of
Genesis 1:1 and
Genesis 2:1 (Genesis 1:20-21,
Genesis 6:20 notes the division of birds into species.
Leviticus 20:25 categorizes them as clean or unclean.
Leviticus 11:13-19 and
Deuteronomy 14:12-18 list the specific birds which the Hebrews regarded as unclean and therefore not to be eaten. All birds of prey, including eagles, vultures, hawks, and falcons, were classified as unclean.
A second general term used for birds in the Old Testament is tsippor. Like ‘oph, tsippor may refer to birds of every kind (Genesis 7:14;
Deuteronomy 4:17), but it usually denotes game birds (Psalms 124:7;
Proverbs 6:5) or the perching birds (passerines,
Daniel 4:12). From the term tsippor the name of Moses' wife (Zipporah) is derived.
In the New Testament the Greek term peteinon is used for birds in general (Matthew 6:26;
Romans 1:23). The term orneon is used in Revelation to describe the completeness of Babylon's destruction (Revelation 18:2) and to refer to flesh-eating fowl (Revelation 19:17,
Specific Birds Named in the Bible Apart from the general terminology, the Bible mentions a great number of birds by name. Translators use different English equivalents to refer to the various birds. Among the birds specifically named in the RSV translation of the Bible are: cock (Proverbs 30:31;
Matthew 26:34,Matthew 26:74-75;
Mark 14:30,Mark 14:72;
Luke 22:34,Luke 22:60-61;
John 18:27), carrion vulture (Leviticus 11:18;
Deuteronomy 14:17), crane (Isaiah 38:14;
Jeremiah 8:7), dove/turtledove (Genesis 8:8-12;
John 1:32), eagle (Exodus 19:4;
Jeremiah 49:16,Jeremiah 49:22), falcon (Leviticus 11:14;
Job 28:7), hawk (Leviticus 11:16;
Job 39:26), hen (Matthew 23:37;
Luke 13:34), heron (Leviticus 11:19;
Deuteronomy 14:18), kite (Leviticus 11:14;
Deuteronomy 14:13), osprey (Leviticus 11:13;
Deuteronomy 14:12), ostrich (Leviticus 11:16;
Micah 1:8), owl (Leviticus 11:17;
Deuteronomy 14:16), partridge (1 Samuel 26:20;
Jeremiah 17:11), peacock (1 Kings 10:22;
2 Chronicles 9:21), pelican (Leviticus 11:18;
Deuteronomy 14:17), pigeon (Genesis 15:9;
John 2:14), quail (Exodus 16:13;
Psalms 105:40), raven (Genesis 8:7;
1 Kings 17:4-6;
Luke 12:24), sea gull (Leviticus 11:16;
Deuteronomy 14:15), sparrow (Psalms 84:3;
Matthew 10:29,Matthew 10:31;
Luke 12:6-7), stork (Leviticus 11:19;
Jeremiah 8:7), swallow (Psalms 84:3;
Jeremiah 8:7), vulture (Leviticus 11:13;
Deuteronomy 14:12), and water hen (Leviticus 11:18;
Deuteronomy 14:16). Ten of the more commonly known birds from this list will be discussed below.
Cock The crowing of the cock is probably the most well-known bird sound in the Bible. All of the New Testament references to the cock (except the mention of “cockcrow” in
Mark 13:35) relate to Peter's denial of Christ. Jesus warned Peter that before the cock crowed twice, Peter would deny Him three times (Mark 14:30). Roosters first crowed about midnight and a second time around three o'clock in the morning. Their crowing occurred so punctually that the Romans relied on this bird sound to signal the time to change the guard.
Dove/Turtledove The term “dove” is applied rather loosely to many of the smaller species of pigeon. The first mention of the dove in the Bible occurs in
Genesis 8:8-12. Noah released a dove from the ark to determine if the flood waters had subsided from the earth.
The moaning of the dove sometimes functions metaphorically (Isaiah 38:14;
Psalms 55:6 notes the dove's powers of flight;
Jeremiah 48:28 describes its nesting habits;
Psalms 68:13 indicates its rich colors. Because of the gentleness of the dove and because of its faithfulness to its mate, this bird is used as a descriptive title of one's beloved in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 2:14;
Song of Solomon 5:2;
Song of Solomon 6:9). In
Matthew 10:16 the dove symbolizes innocence.
All four Gospels describe the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon Jesus after His baptism (Matthew 3:1;Matthew 16:1;
John 1:32). This familiar bird with all its rich associations was chosen to symbolize God's Spirit.
The term “turtledove” also is applied to any of the smaller varieties of pigeon. The turtledove played a significant sacrificial role in the Bible (Genesis 15:9;
Leviticus 5:7,Leviticus 5:11;
Luke 2:24). For those who could not afford a lamb, the law prescribed that two turtledoves or pigeons be offered for the sacrifice of purification after childbearing. Mary brought such an offering after the birth of Christ (Leviticus 12:8;
Luke 2:24). The turtledove also signified the arrival of spring (Song of Solomon 2:12;
Eagle The term “eagle” refers to several large birds of prey active in the daytime rather than at night. The Hebrew term translated “eagle” (nesher) also sometimes is translated “vulture.” The eagle, the largest flying bird of Palestine, may reach a wingspread of eight feet or more. The Palestinian eagle builds great nests of sticks on rocky crags in the mountains (Job 39:27-28;
Jeremiah 49:16). As one of the most majestic birds, it occupies a prominent role in the Bible. The eagle appears in the lists of unclean birds (Leviticus 11:13;
Deuteronomy 14:12). Old Testament writers noted the eagle's swift movement (Deuteronomy 28:49;
2 Samuel 1:23;
Jeremiah 4:13), the sweep and power of its flight (Proverbs 23:5;
Isaiah 40:31), and the eagle's concern for its young (Exodus 19:4;
In the ancient world the eagle or vulture often was associated with deity. The prophets and apocalyptists chose this bird to play a figurative or symbolic role in their writings (Ezekiel 1:10;
Exodus 19:4 and
Deuteronomy 32:11 the eagle is used figuratively of God's protection and care. In these passages God is pictured as a loving parent who redeems and protects His people even as the parent eagle cares for its young. The dove and the eagle are two of the most frequently mentioned birds of the Scriptures. They symbolize two basic aspects of the Bible's message. The dove symbolizes God's activity in the world through His Spirit, while the eagle represents God's care for His people.
Hen The Greek word translated “hen” can refer to the female of any bird, not just the domesticated fowl. Only two references to the hen occur in the Scriptures (Matthew 23:37;
Luke 13:34). In both instances the term is used figuratively of God's care for His people. The hen stands as a figure of the self-sacrifice and tender motherliness of God revealed in Christ.
Ostrich The ostrich, the largest of birds, is a swift, flightless fowl. One passage in Job (Job 39:13-18) describes some of the characteristic habits of the ostrich. The female lays her eggs in the sand. The male does most of the incubating, mainly at night. Unhatched eggs serve as food for the young. Although the parent bird leaves the nest when it senses danger, this diversionary tactic actually is a protective measure. However, such habits may have created the impression that the ostrich was indifferent to its young (Lamentations 4:3). The ostrich is listed as unclean (Leviticus 11:16;
Deuteronomy 14:15), probably because of its eating habits.
Pigeon “Pigeon” is a general term referring to any of a widely distributed subfamily of fowl (Columbinae). The term “pigeon” basically is employed when referring to the use of these birds for sacrificial offerings. In Leviticus pigeons serve as burnt offerings and as sin offerings (Leviticus 1:14;
Leviticus 5:7,Leviticus 5:11). They also play a role in the rituals for purification following childbirth (Leviticus 12:6,Leviticus 12:8) and for the cleansing of a healed leper (Leviticus 14:22,Leviticus 14:30). Along with turtledoves, pigeons are the least expensive animal offerings. Mary offered a pigeon and two turtledoves after Jesus' birth (Luke 2:24).
Quail The Hebrew term translated “quail” in the Old Testament is found only in connection with God's provision of food for Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16:13;
Psalms 105:40). Probably the quails which visited the Hebrew camp were a migrating flock. Enormous numbers of quails migrate north during the spring after wintering in Africa. When the fatigued birds stop to rest, they can be caught easily. In God's timing the birds came to provide for the needs of His people.
The quails mentioned in the Old Testament differ from the North American bobwhite quails. Besides being migratory, the quails of the Bible are mottled brown in color and are smaller than the bobwhite quails. The quails mentioned in the Old Testament have short wings and weak powers of flight.
Raven The raven, conspicuous because of its black color (Song of Solomon 5:11), is a member of the crow family. The raven acts as a scavenger and is listed among the unclean birds (Leviticus 11:1;Leviticus 15:1;
Deuteronomy 14:14). Biblical writers cite the raven as an example of God's care for His creation (Job 38:41;
The raven was the first bird Noah sent forth from the ark following the flood (Genesis 8:7). He may have selected the raven for several reasons. It can fly without rest for long spans of time. Also the raven makes its home in the rocky crags, and thus it would scout out mountain peaks emerging from the flooded earth. Finally, the raven is a resourceful bird with a remarkable memory.
God sent ravens to sustain Elijah by the brook Cherith (1 Kings 17:4-6). Ravens often store surplus food beneath leaves or in rocky crevices. Although ravens often have been viewed as birds of evil omen, in the Elijah story they serve as symbols of God's love for His servant and of His mighty sovereignty over nature.
Sparrow The sparrow belongs to the finch family. In the Old Testament the Hebrew term translated “sparrow” (tsippor) also carries the general meaning “bird.” The translation “sparrow” occurs in the Revised Standard Version text in
Psalms 84:3 and in
Proverbs 26:2. The King James Version also translates tsippor “sparrow” in
Psalms 84:3 refers to the nesting habits of the sparrow at the altars of the Lord. The altars of the Lord may be a general reference to various structures in the Temple area which would be attractive to small, nesting birds.
Psalms 102:7, the translation “sparrow” may be inappropriate because the verse refers to a bird “alone upon the house top,” and the most common sparrows always appeared in flocks. On the other hand, the psalmist may have intended this contradiction to emphasize the depth of loneliness and utter desolation which he was experiencing.
Two passages in the New Testament refer to the sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31;
Luke 12:6-7). In these parallel passages Jesus taught His disciples to have confidence in God's love. The God who cares for all of His creation, even the insignificant sparrow, certainly cares for people.
Vulture Both carrion vulture and vulture are listed separately in the unclean bird lists (Leviticus 11:13-19;
Deuteronomy 14:12-18 RSV). The term “vulture” refers to several different birds of prey. The English word “vulture” is used to translate several different Hebrew terms.
The Bible does not permit a positive identification of the types of vultures known during the biblical period. In contrast to eagles and hawks, which usually kill living prey, vultures feed on dead animals.
The Hebrew term nesher, sometimes translated “eagle,” is translated “vulture” in Hosea's threat to Israel (Deuteronomy 8:1). Lack of a proper burial was viewed as a great horror in biblical times. The common belief was that as long as a body remained unburied, the person could not be gathered to the fathers and experience rest in Sheol. Goliath and David threatened one another with this fate (1 Samuel 17:44,1 Samuel 17:46). The curses in Deuteronomy warned the disobedient of this horrible consequence (Deuteronomy 28:26). Ultimately the author of Revelation used the image of the birds of prey to picture the defeat of evil before the reign of Christ (Revelation 19:17-21; compare
Role of Birds in the Bible As the above discussion indicates, birds play a variety of roles in the Bible. Besides providing basic food needs (for example, the quails in the wilderness), birds function as messengers. Examples of this latter role include the dove and the raven in the flood story and the ravens who provided food in the Elijah narratives.
Birds played an important role in the sacrificial offerings. Examples of this function include Abraham's offering in
Genesis 15:1, laws about sacrifices in Leviticus, and Mary's offering in
Luke 2:24. Pigeons and turtledoves served as alternative offerings for those who could not afford a lamb.
Perhaps the most important function of birds in the Bible is their symbolic or figurative role. The dove may symbolize innocence (Matthew 10:16) or God's activity in the world through His Spirit (Matthew 3:16). The eagle or vulture played a figurative or symbolic role in the writings of the prophets and the apocalyptists. The image of birds of prey is used in Revelation to picture the final defeat of evil.
A number of passages refer to birds as symbols of God's protection and care. In
Exodus 19:4 and
Deuteronomy 32:11, God is revealed as the loving Parent who redeems and protects His people just as the parent eagle cares for its young. Jesus used the example of the hen gathering her chicks under her wing as a figure of His sacrificial love for man (Matthew 23:37;
Luke 13:34). In the Elijah story, ravens symbolize God's love for His servant as well as His sovereignty over nature.
By reference to the insignificant sparrow (Matthew 10:1: 29-31;
Luke 12:6-7), Jesus taught His disciples to have confidence in God's love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarized one of the greatest lessons we can learn from the birds of the air.
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26).