Birdwatching is not only a way to become connected with the world around you, but a form of artistic expression. Bird symbolism is a fascinating topic with thousands of years of history.
As a painter with over a decade of experience using acrylics and watercolor, I’ve regularly drawn upon birds as a source of inspiration for my inner world. These beautiful animals are both stunning to behold and rich with deeper meaning.
Symbolism is an artistic expression that can change entirely depending on the culture or time period – you can even create your own symbolism within the boundaries of your work.
I’ll share bird symbolism in classic paintings and dive into how artists used these birds to represent themes such as hope, romance, and death. By the end of this piece, I hope you’ll be brimming with inspiration on how to incorporate birds into your artistic pastimes.
The Differences Between Bird Symbolism and Bird Imagery
Before I dive into the symbolism behind bird families and specific species, let’s differentiate between terms first. Bird symbolism is a broad term that can include individual species as well as bird-related imagery.
Wings and feathers have been used by humans to represent concepts or emotions for literally thousands of years. For example, ancient Greek art was regularly filled with winged humans representing gods, demigods, and angels.
Below is a painted vase dating back to the 4th century BCE depicting the Greek god Eros surrounded by goddesses, his feathered wings a symbol of his divinity.
As such, this topic could technically cover broader symbolism like wings and talons. It can also explore the nuances of certain species like great horned owls or tufted titmice.
For this piece, I’ll be exploring how specific bird families and bird species were used as visual shorthands for emotions, themes, or aspirations.
Songbird Symbolism – Representatives of Grace and Complexity
With their sweet voices and colorful plumage, songbirds have ignited the imaginations of countless artists since humanity’s origin. To this day they’re one of the best-known bird families among artists and/or bird watchers alike.
When you want to learn about bird symbolism, goldfinches are one of the best starting points for the artistic birdwatcher. They regularly crop up in classic paintings, sculpture, and pottery.
Among the best-known paintings of goldfinches – indeed, one of the best-known bird paintings of all time – is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. This brilliant oil painting showcases a powerful command of fundamentals such as lighting, form, and shadow.
It’s also a solid example of how birds can represent specific concepts or emotions.
This songbird was incredibly popular throughout Europe as a painting subject. The goldfinch’s symbolism was commonly connected with good health and whimsy, two traits that make sense if you’ve seen this charming bird in action.
Goldfinches were also quite popular due to their trainability. The chain on the bird’s ankle in this painting refers to the custom of teaching goldfinches how to draw water using a tiny chain and bucket.
You can see this trick portrayed in another beautiful painting called Fruit Still-Life with Squirrel and Goldfinch by Abraham Mignon.
In this piece, the goldfinch is leaning down and drawing water from a tiny metal bucket.
There’s a slew of interesting cross-symbolism with the fruits, vegetables, and squirrel. Red squirrels are sometimes associated with good luck, which pairs well with the goldfinch’s association with good health. It’s a painting of overflowing abundance and gratitude, artfully arranged for everyone to enjoy.
Just how far does the goldfinch’s symbolism go? For many artists, this bird was a prime visual representation of divinity.
The goldfinch’s religious symbolism is easy to see in the oil painting Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael. The goldfinch’s red spot was a common shorthand at the time to represent the crucifixion of Jesus.
More specifically, a legend states a goldfinch took a thorn from Jesus’s crown and became stained in return.
The canary is a familiar sight even outside the bird-watching community, famed for its lilting song. Whether we’re talking about the domesticated canary or its wild cousin, this bird’s image is a welcome sight in paintings.
Canary symbolism often revolved around charm and positivity. It’s here you’ll learn another important aspect of symbolism – subverting expectations.
A Girl with a Dead Canary by Jean-Baptiste Greuze flips the canary’s whimsical symbolism on its head with a tragic scene of a girl in mourning.
Since the canary represents positive elements such as hope and positivity, you can connect the dots with what the bird’s death resembles.
A dead canary simultaneously represents the end of good times and wonderful memories, but also the beginning of something new. The combined symbolism with the flowers is also quite appropriate – pink flowers, regardless of type, are a common shorthand to represent love.
Hummingbird and Swift Symbolism – From Innocent to Romantic
Since hummingbirds and swifts are part of the same family, they’ll both be featured in the same section. These gorgeous birds awe and inspire with their striking silhouettes (a particularly great source of inspiration for artists who want to practice shape language).
What do you feel when you see a hummingbird flitting around a bush of flowers? Martin Johnson Heade felt a complex array of emotions ranging from fascination to romance.
While hummingbirds in the West are frequently associated with childlike innocence and nostalgia, Martin’s painting combined multiple forms of symbolism for a new result. Orchid and Hummingbirds near a Mountain Lake features two white-bellied hummingbirds flitting around bright pink orchids, a flower that was frequently used to represent romance and sensuality.
There are several fascinating interpretations you can make with the combined symbolism of these birds and these particular flowers. Does this work represent falling in love for the first time? Perhaps it’s the shy approach of a lover to another (the hummingbird to the flower).
The swift’s iconic trailing wings regularly adorn paintings and sculptures around the world. Swift’s general symbolism has wavered from positive to negative over the centuries, even earning them the name ‘the Devil’s bird’ at one point.
From the chimney swift’s tendency to hide in narrow crannies to the swift’s general nocturnal behavior, their traits resulted in an elusive (and sometimes spooky reputation) in the past. However, some artists viewed their streamlined bodies and swooping flight patterns as a representation of gracefulness and freedom.
Common Swifts by Swedish wildlife painter Bruno Liljefors showcases common swifts in a charming and playful light, portraying two swifts swooping over a lovely flower field defrosting from winter.
You can read many emotions into this lovely piece. The birds’ open beaks almost look like they’re cheering the coming of spring, linking closely to their symbolic association with freedom.
Owl Symbolism – Figures of Mystery and Power
With their glossy eyes and iconic call, owls have both enchanted and unnerved humans for thousands of years. Several ancient societies, such as ancient Japan and Indian cultures, often associated the owl with death.
However, several more cultures – such as ancient Greece – viewed the owl as a figure of magic and might, associating their presence instead with power. To this day, owls are famed for their silent flight and fierce hunting ability.
Barn owls are striking birds, boasting a moon-shaped face that pairs succinctly with their haunting, shrieking call. Their symbolism lines up closely with overall owl symbolism in their association with the paranormal as well as bringers of death.
When viewed through the dominant symbolism of the time, you can reach interesting conclusions with British painter Valentine Cameron Prinsep’s painting Il Barbagianni The Owl. The combined symbolism of the barn owl with surrounding elements, such as the plant and the woman’s dress, creates a compelling story.
The orange tree was historically associated with loyalty and wealth, a stark contrast with the barn owl’s association with disease or death. Since the model was based on Lizzie Siddal, the wife of the painter’s friend, there are several interpretations you can pull here.
The woman’s tender treatment of the owl could represent her comfort with the eventuality of death. Her decadent jewelry and placement of the orange tree also represent her status and wealth. It’s a piece of prestige and loss, all depicted with the deft hand of a seasoned painter.
If you’re wondering just how owls eventually became symbols of wisdom in the West, you could make a reasonable argument that some artists already reached that conclusion. Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter was fascinated by the natural world and honored its complexity with different takes on bird species.
His stunning oil painting Concert Of Birds showcases several species gathering for a symphony, led by what appears to be a short-eared owl over a book of sheet music.
The owl is a commanding presence, but with a more positive connotation – they lead an artistic congregation rather than inspire fear or worry.
His attention to detail is astounding – alongside owls, he accurately recreated several bird species such as barn swallows and mallards.
Waterfowl Symbolism – Often Familiar, Always Elegant
Since bird families like owls and swifts are more elusive, relatively more common birds like waterfowl often occupy completely different symbolism. They’re familiar and comforting, frequently tapping into sentiments like nostalgia or good cheer.
However, that’s not to say waterfowl can’t still cover a wide variety of symbols depending on individual species.
Their long, elegant necks and towering stature mark herons as one of the go-to symbolic birds for painters of all stripes. They’ve been lovingly recreated in many cultures, such as Japan’s thousand-year-old depictions of herons picking their way through streams and lakes.
Such a dignified appearance would only naturally garner symbolism of wisdom, grace, and age.
Frans Snyders recreated an old Aesop with his 1657 oil painting The Fable of the Fox and Heron.
The story depicts a fox who attempts to trick a heron by inviting the bird to eat soup from a bowl, incompatible with the heron’s beak. The heron then offers the fox a stew served in a narrow vase that the fox can’t reach, either.
The moral of the story refers to the consequences of one’s actions and how one deserves what they put out into the world – for better and for worse. Since herons frequently represented wisdom and elegance, it’s not hard to see why they one-upped the fox’s game.
The reputation of geese hundreds of years ago isn’t all that different from geese today. Their charming waddle and ease around humans make them a comfortable and sometimes comical sight.
A fantastic depiction of geese symbolism is the aptly titled The Goose Girl by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Her humble shawl and bare feet suggest working-class origins. Combined with her stick – either for self-defense or shepherding the birds before her – these details pair smartly with the birds’ symbolism of vigilance and protection.
Gamefowl Symbolism – Royalty and Abundance
While not as commonly portrayed as owls or songbirds, gamefowl have enjoyed their own slice of the classic painting limelight. Their vibrantly textured feathers and tendency to linger on the ground have inspired all sorts of interesting symbolism over the centuries.
It’s impossible to discuss bird symbolism without mentioning one of the most lavish birds on the planet – the male peacock. This bird’s magnificent tail and iridescent feathers have enamored artists on both a technical and symbolic level.
Melchior d’ Hondecoeter’s oil painting Peacocks celebrates this bird as a symbol of prestige and elegance, quite literally elevating the peacock over all the other subjects.
This symbolism was more than just a creative flourish – monarchical societies regularly commissioned art of the bird or owned the bird to represent their wealth.
It’s quite a whiplash to go from the stately peacock to the hardy turkey, but that’s what makes birds so fascinating. Even within the same family, you can get some serious symbolic variety.
Claude Monet’s 1877 oil painting The Turkeys is a masterclass of subtle lighting, portraying a flock of turkeys moving up the hill on a lazy summer evening.
While turkeys may not have the same refined reputation as their colorful cousins, they still represent abundance and comfort.
Indeed, their placement in front of an old, wealthy estate is a fitting match – you don’t get much more comfortable than that.
The quail is a quaint little bird, with the Gambel’s quail being best known for the male’s head plume. No matter the species, the bird has long represented hope and good fortune.
You can see this symbolism well-portrayed in The Miracle of the Quails by classical painter Jacapo Bassano. This complex painting depicts a scene from the Old Testament where the recently freed slaves from Egypt come across flocks of quails on their journey.
Bird Symbolism Is an Enriching Angle To Approach Your Hobby With
I’ve only scratched the tip of a fascinating iceberg. With so many bird species and so many phenomenal artists, you’ll have no shortage of inspiration for your craft.
The placement of birds in a painting will already invite an audience’s interpretation based on culture, time period, and personal taste. Artists will add extra layers of complexity to their work by combining bird symbolism with surrounding elements such as flowers, clothing, or objects.
Have you seen any paintings or illustrations featuring birds recently? Share them on social media or send this article to one of your artistic friends.