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How to Read Birds as Omens and Signs

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In 2010, I started befriending the crows in my neighborhood. Every year, there's at least one new baby crow to introduce myself to.

I saw a black bird. Is it an omen? What does it mean?

I saw a black bird. Is it an omen? What does it mean?

The Long History of Reading Birds as Omens & Signs

Since ancient times, people have looked to the heavens for signs, and since birds fly, it makes sense that people would perceive birds as messengers of the gods or fates. After all, a bird's-eye-view is significantly more omniscient than an earthbound perspective. Birds know what the world looks like from 30,000 feet high; they have seen the insides of clouds, so looking to birds for perspective makes an odd kind of sense.

Augury—the art of interpreting birds as omens—has been around since before the ancient Romans. An "auspice" is a Latin term for the messages birds might convey. An "augur" (a word that means both omen and one who sees an omen) would "take the auspices" by looking at "aves" (birds) and "reading" their appearance and behavior. Those auspices (bird-signs) were sometimes auspicious (lucky) and sometimes inauspicious.

If you say the words "auspices" and "auspicious" aloud, you can hear their relationship. Language emphasizes the long history of the belief that birds and luck are linked and that one might look to birds for guidance to determine which steps to take in life.

But it wasn't just the ancient Romans who "read" birds. Ornithomancy, a modern term for augury, has been practiced all around the world, from the earliest recorded times. It's alluded to in many stories and legends of the indigenous people of the Americas and mentioned in the bible's old testament. Countless cultures have myths about clever, wise birds who talk to gods and deliver insight to humans.

Anyway, people have been reading birds for a very, very long time. If you'd like to begin practicing the ancient art of augury, this article will help you get started.

According to the ancient Egyptians, sparrows caught the souls of the recently deceased and carried them to heaven.

According to the ancient Egyptians, sparrows caught the souls of the recently deceased and carried them to heaven.

What Does It Mean If a Bird...

What does it mean if a bird taps at my window?

Birds do this all the time: They see their reflection and freak out, assuming it's some rival bird encroaching on their territory. Usually, it's the territorial types that do it, and usually in springtime when they're feeling really frisky, but tapping on the window is hard to ignore. It's easy to believe that the bird is trying to get your attention.

A bird pecking on a window is definitely an opportunity to stop and pay attention. What have you forgotten or neglected to attend to? What neglected duties need doing? Which loose ends need tying? Take this as an opportunity to sit down and pick your brain to figure out what or whom you've overlooked.

What does it mean if a bird poops on me... or my car?

Most of us would be upset if a bird pooped on us. It's hard not to take this kind of thing personally, especially if you have to clean it up (that's what I call adding insult to injury). You may wonder if this particular bird has a vendetta against you or an angry message from above. Maybe you've insulted the universe in some way, and this is its revenge. Maybe it's an angry ancestor trying to express their unhappiness about some mess you're making in life.

On the other hand, you might choose to agree with all the happy optimists who insist that bird poop is a lucky sign. This is probably the healthiest interpretation since, after all, s*** happens.

What if a bird smashes into my window?

The awful thud of a bird hitting your window is a sign you just can't ignore. What it might mean:

  • Perhaps you're going to encounter an obstacle of some kind: emotional, mental, or physical.
  • Maybe it's a sign that you're headed in the wrong direction in some aspect of your life: personal, professional, or interpersonal.
  • Maybe you're moving too fast or too rashly and you need to slow down.
  • It could be a reminder of the obstacles you face and a reminder that not all options are open, or that timing is everything.
  • It might represent a rough transition, a trap, or a hidden pitfall.
  • It could represent the end of one reality, relationship, or belief system, and the start of something new.
  • Or it might just mean that the poor bird didn't see the glass. Consider putting up tape strips so it doesn't happen again.

What does it mean if a bird flies into my house?

Most cultures have superstitious beliefs that if a bird flies into your house, it is a message from above: God, fate, the universe, or your dead ancestors are trying to tell you something. Many believe that it is a bad omen, but many more believe that it is just a reminder to keep your eyes open (and your window shut!).

The other day, a blue jay flew into my house looking for food... and then forgot how to get out. It caused a terrifying ruckus flapping around and banging its head into the glass, trying to escape. I grabbed a towel, threw it over the bird, then brought it back outside again. I felt sorry for it because I know how it feels to stumble headlong, unwittingly into a trap you don't know how to escape from, like a dead-end job, a toxic relationship, or some other mistake. You think you're headed towards something great and then all of a sudden, you find yourself in a very wrong situation you can't back out of. I took this situation as a timely object lesson and was grateful for the reminder.

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Auspices: Bird Signs and What They Might Mean

In ancient Italy, not all birds in the sky were viewed as meaningful signs or messages from gods. They observed two kinds of birds: oscines and alites.

  • Oscines (ravens, crows, owls, and chickens), whose birdsongs conveyed larger meanings, could be interpreted as either favorable (lucky) or not, depending on where they sang from in relation to the augur.
  • Alites (eagles, vultures, and others) were those whose actions and flight patterns were interpreted meaningfully.

Depending on what time of year the bird was heard or observed, every sound and movement made by these birds had a different interpretation.

Ex tripudiis—the dances of feeding birds—were often read to help guide military expeditions. The troops brought chickens with them to war just for this purpose and would sprinkle food on the ground and release the birds from their cages when guidance was needed. If the chickens didn't come out to eat, crowed, flapped, or flew off, these were seen as bad omens, but if even one came out and dropped some food on the ground, this was a very lucky sign.

So what does this mean for you?

Let the ancient Romans guide you. When reading the skies for omens, consider all of the following:

  • What sounds does the bird make? Would you characterize the sound as mournful, happy, peeved, insistent, scared, sad, or haunting? What emotion or memory is evoked by that sound?
  • What is the bird doing? Is it flying, strutting, watching, flapping, swimming, hunting, or sleeping, and what meaning can you make from this action?
  • What type of bird is it? Is it a waterbird, songbird, predatory bird, or scavenger? What significance can you derive from the type, and does it hold any special meaning for you?
  • What color is the bird? Consult the table of color significance below.
  • How many birds are there? Is it a flock, a family, or an individual bird? Again, what significance can you ascribe to this number?
Many believe that the number of birds you see has special significance.

Many believe that the number of birds you see has special significance.

Is Seeing a Black Bird Bad Luck?

Black creatures get a bad rap. Black sheep, black cats, and black birds (mainly crows and ravens) all have negative associations. Although many people assume black is bad, this consensus is no proof that these things are intrinsically malevolent or dangerous. Rather, the belief that black things are always bad is proof that people are lazy and want easy answers for things.

It would be very nice—and handy!—if all we had to do to find answers and guidance in life were to walk outside, look up at the sky, and "read" the birds flying overhead, especially if black meant always bad and white always meant good (and take a moment to notice the inherent racism of that remark). But of course, nothing is that simplistic.

Seeing a bird is not going to give you a clear answer. It's no magic 8-ball (and who thinks those are really magic?). A bird's color doesn't necessarily make any meaningful difference whatsoever. However, just as reading Tarot cards, studying astrology, and taking personality tests all give people ways to understand themselves more deeply, looking at nature can, too. Think of augury as just one more means of introspection and reflection.

With that in mind and from that angle, maybe a bird's color could be meaningful. Below you'll find a chart of different ways to interpret a bird's color.

What Could the Color of a Bird Symbolize?

As with the action and type of bird, the color of the bird you see might have significance. The seer's personal associations with a particular color should always be taken into account, as well.

White BirdsBlack BirdsRed BirdsBlue BirdsYellow Birds

peace, death, innocence, purity, kindness, forgiveness

The Shadow, secrets, dreams, the unconscious, death

passion, blood, danger, heat, a warning

happiness, sadness, truth, clarity, the unknown

happiness, a warning, joy, freedom (or lack of it)

If I see a white bird, what does it mean?

If I see a white bird, what does it mean?

Questions to Ask to Discover a Bird's Significance

There are two kinds of bird signs: imperative (sought after, asked for, or requested) and oblative (unasked for; coming out of the blue like a bolt of lightning!). So ask yourself: Is the bird bringing you an unasked-for message from the universe? Or is it answering a question you asked—explicitly or implicitly?

Is the bird bringing you an unasked-for message from the universe? Or is it answering a question you asked—explicitly or implicitly?

What the Type of Bird You See Might Signify

Type of BirdAssociations to ConsiderHistorical or Cultural Context

Black birds (crows, ravens, blackbirds)

Black birds are most often associated with death. They are often believed to bring messages from our dead loved ones.

Odin, a Norse God, had two ravens who flew all over the world then returned to whisper what they'd seen into his ears.

White birds (doves, egrets, etc.)

Like black birds, white birds are often associated with ghosts, holy spirits, and the afterlife.

Doves are seen by many as symbols of peace or faith.

Owls

Owls are often associated with wisdom, knowledge, and insight. They're also sometimes associated with female power and fertility.

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was always pictured with an owl.

Predatory birds (hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, etc.)

Victory, strength, power, domination, perspective.

Many cultures associate predatory birds with war.

Scavengers (vultures, crows, etc.)

Tenacity, patience, observation, timing.

Most people know that scavengers linger near dead bodies.

Songbirds (finches, sparrows, starlings, etc.)

Domesticity, imprisonment, freedom, cheerfulness.

Miners used to take canaries down into mine shafts as an early warning system for lack of oxygen.

Hummingbirds

Lightheartedness, diligence, the importance of small things.

Aztecs saw them as messengers from the gods and ancestors. They were good luck symbols.

A flock of starlings in a murmuration: What does it mean? These flying patterns are more akin to physics than biology, but scientists still don't know how the birds can do it!

A flock of starlings in a murmuration: What does it mean? These flying patterns are more akin to physics than biology, but scientists still don't know how the birds can do it!

Questions & Answers

Question: What does it mean if a bird flies in a circle above you?

Answer: So it's like a bird is drawing a circle around you from above? If this happened to me it would be hard not to imagine myself not as "the center of the universe," but certainly as the center of something. I'd have to stop and ponder what, exactly.

Question: What does it mean if a bluebird hits you in the head?

Answer: If any bird hit me in the head, I'd definitely have to wonder. Physical contact with a wild animal is very unusual, and wild animals seldom touch humans for no reason. I'd definitely think that the bird was trying to get my attention and warn me about something.

Question: What does it mean if a blackbird lands on your shoulder, unafraid?

Answer: If a blackbird landed on my shoulder, I'd imagine that bird thought it knew me. I'd assume it was an old friend of mine or an ancestor trying to communicate or reach out for some reason. I'd ask myself which friend/family member was trying to connect with me, and I'd look at the details of the situation to try to guess who (and imagine what, exactly, they were trying to convey). Where you were and what you were doing and what you were thinking about right before the bird landed. Those are all important parts of the story. I'd also take it as a sign of my relationship with and connection to the environment/world/universe.

Question: What does a dead blackbird mean?

Answer: When you come across a dead creature, it's always a bit jarring. Being reminded of your mortality and vulnerability is always a bit of a shock. It's a little reminder that nobody—no living creature—can see their end; we can't predict or know or control it. The bird couldn't, and you can't either. It's good to be reminded of this fact of reality every once in a while, especially since we like to fool ourselves. If you see a dead bird, take a moment to pause and consider all those obvious, plain truths that you'd prefer to forget. Being reminded of your lack of control might be an opportunity to reassess what is really important now, at this moment, so that you can reassess how you are living and how you're spending your time.

Question: I saw a white bird (it looked decently large but I couldn't make out what it was, it moved in and out of sight so fast) in the middle of the night fly across the road just where my headlights could see it. Do you think this could be symbolic of anything or just coincidence?

Answer: I think anything can be symbolic if you want it to be, and if it were me, I might definitely see a large, ghostlike bird revealing itself to me at night as a significant event. Perhaps it was an owl? Owls always seem important and significant to me.

Question: My mom is always coming across injured birds, or abandoned baby birds. Songbirds and ducks mostly. What does this mean?

Answer: If I were her, I'd definitely wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something. It seems as though she is being asked to help or challenged to become emotionally and physically involved with nature and the environment. Maybe it's a skill she has or one she might consider working on.

Question: What does it mean when a bird flies into my house, lands, stares at me with its mouth open, and then flies out?

Answer: I have seen crows do this on hot days. When you see a bird "panting" like this, it usually means it's hot, thirsty, or its central nervous system is affected by heat or dehydration. It's almost as if this bird were begging you for help. Has it been very hot where you live? Maybe it hoped you'd put out a bowl of water?

Question: What does it mean if a crow or raven tapped on my window and then hovered there with its wings rubbing against the window?

Answer: Whenever a wild bird seems to be trying to get into one's house, whenever they even notice the glass that separates domesticity from the great outdoors, it is an unexpected and thrilling event. Why was the crow trying to get your attention? Why was it attempting to breach the barrier between you? That's a question only you can answer.

Question: I've seen 6 (maybe more) dead birds very close to where I live over the last two or three days. What's going on?

Answer: Although it might be tempting to look for spiritual reasons for this, I'd be inclined to worry about a physical threat in the neighborhood first. Before looking for supernatural reasons, I'd look around to see if there's some real danger or explanation. Is it spring? (Lots of newborn or fledgling birds don't make it.) Is there some poison? Is someone killing them? I'd answer these questions before looking for spiritual reasons.

Question: Three sparrows flew into my girlfriend's car. Does it have any meaning?

Answer: If your girlfriend doesn't already know why the number 3 is important to her now, she should pay attention—especially for the next three days, weeks, or month— to see what special importance the number 3 has for her.

Question: I work at a mortuary and yesterday I walked outside to find a dead sparrow with only the head skeletonized outside the door....what could this symbolize?

Answer: Do you mean that the sparrow's flesh and feathers were intact everywhere but on its head? What a macabre and bizarre sight that must have been! I'd definitely have to think about why the head (and all that a head represents: thinking, knowing, consciousness, etc.) and the body (and all it represents: mobility, flight, instinct, etc.) behaved or were treated differently. Why separate the two? I'd consider whether this vision helped explain some division or separation in my life, and I'd wonder why the contents of the head were revealed to me but not the body.

Question: What does a visit from a predatory bird mean?

Answer: As usual, the viewer has to look at the context of their life to know what it means. Do you feel aligned with the predator—is it a friendly visit from a friend—or do you feel threatened? Predators are known for their eyesight. The term "eagle eye" refers to extraordinary vision. An eagle's eyes are four to eight times more powerful than a human's. What perspective can you gain from a bird's eye view right now?