How to Read Birds as Omens and Signs
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 for knowing 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.
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 its the territorial types that do it, and usually in springtime when they're feeling really frisky, but a tapping on the window is hard to ignore. Its 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 its 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 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 in 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.
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.
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?
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?
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)
Questions to Ask to Discover a Bird's Significance
There are two kinds of bird signs: impetrative (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?
What the Type of Bird You See Might Signify
Type of Bird
Associations to Consider
Historical 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 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.
Lightheartedness, diligence, the importance of small things.
Aztecs saw them as messengers from the gods and ancestors. They were good luck symbols.