Can you think of a few birds that symbolize death? You may think of some birds as menacing creatures, similar to how Edgar Allan Poe or Alfred Hitchcock did when they wrote “The Raven” or directed “The Birds.”
Other birds that you may associate with death bring comfort. For example, many feel that when they receive a visit from a cardinal or a hummingbird that they are being visited by a deceased loved one.
Let’s learn about how certain birds became to be associated with death. We’ll discuss how some birds related to death in our culture may not have that connection drawn in other societies.
Here’s our list of “death birds.”
Many people think of their deceased loved ones when visited by a cardinal. For some people, the cardinal acts as a reminder of the one they loved, and still others feel that their loved ones are coming back for a visit in the form of the bird.
As a side note, hummingbirds also have this distinction. If you recently lost someone and get visited by a hummingbird, it is said to be a sign that a deceased loved one is visiting you.
It’s not clear where either of these traditions came from, but some scholars associate the red cardinal with the blood of Christ. There aren’t any direct references in the Bible to cardinals, but the book of Matthew says not to worry about “what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” Instead, we should look to the birds for inspiration on how to live.
Most societies see cardinals as favorable omens.
While Native Americans, Celtic, and Chinese traditions typically view crows as positive omens or even a sign of good fortune, other societies view them as harbingers of death. Some consider them to be clever birds that trick humans. In Wales, a crow flying above one’s house is said to predict the death of one of the inhabitants.
Further association of the crow with death occurred in 1993 when Brandon Lee was killed in a freak accident while shooting a film named after the bird.
Perhaps it is because a group of crows is called a “murder” or accounts of crows acting strangely around a dead member of their community, causing the crow to be associated with death. Learn more about this phenomenon in our article, What Happens During a Crow Funeral?
Ravens are larger than crows and have a different tail shape and flight pattern. Ravens and crows are both black birds that act as a symbol of death or mourning.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven,” a man goes crazy when visited by a talking bird. The bird’s squawks of “nevermore” reminded the man in the poem of his deceased lover, who was conveniently named (for rhyming purposes) Lenore.
Poe wasn’t the only one to look at these birds with suspicion. There is a Danish story where a raven’s appearance corresponds with the death of a local priest.
Generally, roosters do not raise the feathers of most humans, but roosters acting out of character may cause concern.
A rooster typically crows at daybreak, so in parts of England, a rooster crowing at night indicates that death is near.
Similarly, if a rooster doesn’t crow at daybreak, great danger (or even death) may lie ahead.
The color of the rooster may also have special significance. The black rooster is considered bad luck in Mexico.
Even though there are many modern literary owls with positive traits (Hedwig in Harry Potter, Owl in Winnie the Pooh, and Soren in Guardians of Ga’Hoole), the owl has been described in many cultures as prophets of doom.
In China, the call of an owl means that a grave will soon need to be dug. In India, the number of times an owl calls can mean that death is imminent to those who heard the call.
Perhaps owls are associated with death because they are a nocturnal bird, but the negative association goes back for centuries. Virgil used negative owl symbolism in “The Aeneid,” and it is said that three Roman emperors died after owls perched on their homes.
We have learned from movies and TV that vultures circling above a character means that death is near. This comes from the fact that vultures eat carrion or dead creatures. This practice is not looked at negatively in some cultures. For example, Tibetan folklore says that the vulture helps with the transition between the earthly life to the holding place the soul goes before rebirth.
First, we know that bats are mammals and not birds. Regardless of their classification, they are typically symbols of Halloween and are also associated with death.
The association of bats with death may be caused because they, like owls, are nocturnal creatures. Their appearance may often be startling, especially if you encounter them hanging upside down during the day.
Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula,” may have also caused a negative association since vampires (like bats) crave the blood of living things.
Even though sparrows do not usually have negative connotations associated with them, they are still considered by many to be “spiritual” creatures. Some ancient traditions state that sparrows carry the souls of the dead, so it is deemed to be bad luck to kill a sparrow. Some sources say that sailors would get tattoos of sparrows so they could carry their souls if they died in the middle of the ocean.
Sparrows are the most referenced bird in the Bible. They are used as symbols of something small or insignificant. One of Jesus’ statements about sparrows can be found in the book of Matthew: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
The connection felt with birds and other animals often come from a person’s society, religious belief, and popular culture. Those connections are often based on personal experiences as well.
If you feel drawn to a particular type of bird or animal, you may consider adding images of them in your end-of-life planning. You can purchase an urn that has a depiction of a cardinal. You may also request a particular poem or passage from the Bible about birds to be read at your funeral.
End-of-life services are becoming more personal than ever before, and that’s because more people are taking the time to plan for their funerals way before they are needed. Make life easy on your family members. Make your funeral choices now — share your plans with those who love you.
- Moreman, Christopher M. “On the Relationship Between Birds and the Spirits of the Dead.” www.academia.edu/5112298/On_The_Relationship_between_Birds_and_Spirits_of_the_Dead
- World Birds. www.worldbirds.org/sparrow-symbolism/