In most folkore, birds represent the spirits of the dead. Celtic and Norse folklores are no exception to this, but, for them, birds also represent aspects of the human spirit, fate, and the passage of time.
Foolishness or Wisdom (depends on the owl), Healing, Death and Ill-fortunes
The barn owl is a solitary bird who mates for life. It was believed that you could know a person’s secrets if you placed an owl feather on him when he slept. Barn owls are representative of the other world and herald death. The owl is the most despised of birds because it stole the rose of the world that brought the day. Nailed to a door, a dead owl wards off lightning and its screech meant that the storm was nearly over.
The gray tawny owl is a wood owl who inspired the legend of ghosts who sucked the blood of babies. They are almost never seen by day. The tawny owl is so territorial that its own young may starve if there is no additional habitat. They have been known to attack humans watching them.
The little owl was the messenger of Athena. It lives on the ground in burrows. It is called wise because of its heavy white eyebrows, making it look like an old sage. Eating the flesh was a cure for many ills and would protect children for life.
Eagle owls can get as large as geese. Due to its large size, it prefers to hunt in open ground, sharing territory peacefully with other raptors. Its scream sounds like a child in mortal terror. It is a bird of ill omen: of deaths or accidents to come.
Much more aggressive than the eagle owl, the long-eared owl will vigorously defend their territories. For northern peoples, this owl was a sign of foolishness. The long-eared owl is called a cat owl in Gaelic.
The short-eared owl prefers open ground and in flight appears to soar like a harrier. It has a barking cry and is thought to be a visitor of ill-fortune.
The nightjar is a nocturnal summer visitor, with a churring voice. Unwanted children who die are doomed to become this bird. The number of successive calls was the number of years to live and it was commonly thought to be a bird of death. Because of its eating the insects disturbed by the animals, it was thought to suck the blood of goats.
War, Death, Misfortune, Wisdom, Oracle, Thief, Trickster
The Celts thought that the sun was escorted into the land of the dead by crows. They also believed that a warrior who saw a crow would be torn by arrows or spears, his flesh torn by the beak of war. The crow was the bird of Lugh (sun god) who takes the form of the crow.
One of the most famous symbols of the Celts and Norse, the raven was a bird of war, but also a shaman's bird. The god Odin had two of them, Memory and Thought, that would bring him news of the entire world. The Celtic Alder God Bran took the form of a raven. Because of its harsh cry it was considered an unlucky bird. Almost too smart to be birds, ravens are extremely playful, but are also thieves and efficient at cooperating with other hunters.
Closely resembling ravens and crows, the rook, has a light colored bill and legs. They forecast the weather and death. It was the worst luck if they abandoned a rookery on your land.
For years identified with carrion crows, the hooded crow is closely associated with fairies. It is also an oracle bird, often associated with rhymes and forecasts of marriage.
The magpie is also known as pica, a word related to the words pick or trick or prick. It steals any shiny object. A single magpie is a sign of ill fortune. The only way to turn this around is to shout “I defy you!” three times.
Sun, Sky, Malevolence, Power, Light, Victory, Ascension
The falcon was also associated with the sun, both as a sign of vision and light, but also as a sign of summer and the summer goddesses like Freya, who wore a cloak of falcon feathers. The most famous of falcons was the merlin, whom Merlin was named after.
The hawk for the celts was a sign of the coming of summer, a drop of fire from the sun. It was a symbol both of victory and of death, The goshawk is known as the “cook’s bird” because it is widely used by commoners to hunt prey in wooded areas. Hawks are associated with beauty, and Freya had a cloak of hawk feathers which turned her into a hawk.
The eagle is considered the second oldest animal, the salmon first. It is a corpse bird, and often was called upon to eat the exposed dead. The wren is the King of birds because it clung to the eagle’s back and flew highest. An eagle also sits at the top of the world tree, but a falcon rests on its head. Eagles have long been associated with Zeus and Thor and other sky gods and are a symbol of the sun and royalty.
The word harry (harass) is related to the word harrier, but the Latin name for this bird means circler, which it does like so many hawks. Most raptors will take to fishing: eagles, harriers, and other hawks will eat fish. The Osprey is very like the sea eagle, but evolved on a different path. Both osprey and harriers are sun birds, related to the wheel of the sun's disk and the revolution through the sky.
Grace, Fertility, Learning, Vanity
The swan symbolizes beauty, love and grace. Angels wear swans wings. It is another solar bird, but signifying purity and the feminine aspects of calm and fertility. Swans are connected to many gods and ancient times, and shared their supernatural abilities. People are often turned into swans and back again.
The goose is a symbol of travel and society. It was believed to be the longest-lived animal and had extremely high status because of its usefulness (eggs, quills, feathers, skin and meat.) A lone goose is a symbol of loss and two a symbol of fidelity and happiness.
Another bird that means fidelity and resourcefulness, the duck is a sign of happiness and beauty, but also of foolish vanity. Most of the goddesses of spring and summer carried duck eggs were born of the egg. Ducks were part of many creation myths. For the Celts, ducks were a symbol of honesty, simplicity and resourcefulness. In more modern times, this graceful bird has become a buffoon and a fool.
The stork is a bird that is said to take care of its parents. Its care of its young is legendary and makes it the symbol of family. However, storks are avid predators and will hunt anything from beetles to rabbits. They have little fear of humans and will nest on roofs. There is an old custom of pledging troth over the body of a dead heron, but the heron mostly signifies change in weather, wisdom and patience.. A bird of divination, roast heron was also a prized dish, but it was considered bad luck to shoot one. The egret was considered to be a small heron, and all herons were a sign of good luck, faithfulness and long life.
The cormorant is a good luck charm for fishermen, but is also a messenger from the dead. It is a symbol of indulgence and bounty.
The curlew, a shore bird, is a sign of bad weather. Its cry is so like a screaming girl that it has gained a reputation as an unlucky bird. A wader with a recurved bill for digging mollusks and insects from the mud, the avocet is rarely seen in flocks of less than twenty birds on marshes and estuaries. The snipe has long been a sign of foolishness, but is also referred to a a thunder bird for its call. Most birds with strange calls arouse superstition. The snipe is a popular game bird.
It is good luck to hear a crake and bad luck to actually see one. They migrate, but in ancient times were thought to change shape for the winter. The lapwing is also known as the pewitt, tuit, or green plover. It it another wader, famous for the way it teeters with a "broken" wing to draw predators from its nest. Plover's eggs are a delicacy all over Europe. Because of their popularity, they are consider the original Easter egg. They are the farmer's friend for feeding on yellowjackets and snails.
The gull is thought to be foolish, thus the word gullible. This bird was also supposed to be the soul of a dead fisherman. Storm petrels are such oily birds that ancient people sometimes made torches of them. They are also said to be the souls of overly harsh captains doomed to fly over the sea forever.
The capercaillie is a large member of the grouse family. The black feathers of the adult have been worn as a family totem for generations. The chicks are patchy to protect them from predators.
The partridge is an ancient fertility bird associated with spring, when the partridge mating dance fills the woods with song for a couple of months. Bridal dinners often begin with partridge on the first day, again on the new year in the fall with partridge on the first day followed by partridge and two doves, and etc. like the song with which most people are familiar. The fertility of this bird is also seen in the number of eggs, which may be up to thirty.
Pigeons are tied to earth goddesses and were the earliest bird tamed. Due to their ability to live with humans, which makes many people think of them as "rats of the sky," they are one of the few not threatened by loss of habitat. Because of its homing instinct, this bird has come to symbolize loyalty and service. Doves are white pigeons and were sacred to fertility goddesses. Their color makes them a symbol of purity and their habit of having only one mate makes them symbols of love.
The green woodpecker is famous for its loud voice, called “yaffing.” It was also called the yaffingale, nickel, or nicker-poker. Its tongue is so long that it wraps up in its skull like a yo-yo string. Important in augury, this bird was sacred to Mars and gods of farming. The wryneck is called “jinx” in Greek, so the name for an evil spell was because of this bird. In particular, it was associated with the goddess of love and love spells that went wrong or backfired. It is related to the woodpecker and has a snake-like neck and long tongue.
The cuckoo has inspired hundreds of superstitions. It is said that for each cuckoo call you hear, you have another year of life left. They usually arrive back in Europe in April and were thought to change into kestrels for the winter.
The finch has always been a symbol of happiness and good fortune. It is also a good luck charm to ward off contagion. Finches were kept in cages because of its happy song. The crossbill is both revered for trying to pull the nails out of the cross, but also a sign of an argumentative mate. The redpoll is known as a snowbird because it winters in Europe where food is available. It is closely related to the finch and is a sign of activity and preparation for winter.
The stonechat, also called furze chitter and stanechacker, is so named because of its cry of alarm, which sounds like stones hitting each other. It is thought to be a devil’s bird, protected by dark powers.
The silver-throated dasher, a relative of the titmouse, is another jester bird that means mirth. However, most titmice are consider joking birds, lying birds, and thieves. The crested titmouse is one of a large family of clever birds that eat insects. They are adept acrobats and smart enough to steal milk out of bottles. A group of titmice is know as a banditry.
The tiny goldcrest is called the “king of birds” for its crown. It is also called the “gold crested wren” and is confused with the wren in folklore.
It is said that the lark and the toad exchanged eyes because the eyes of the toad are so pretty and those of the lark so ugly. It is considered bad luck to eat a lark, but they are delicacies at high tables.
The nightingale’s song is famous throughout the West. Although it is considered a love song, it is also a lament. The bird is buff colored, almost invisible in the woods, but can be heard by day or by night.
Robin redbreast is a bird of fortune. It was extremely unlucky to kill this bird or have it fly into the house. It would grant favors and cover dead bodies in leaves. The hand that kills the robin will develop a huge lump and shake until death.
The tiny wren is called the King of all birds. The Fairy Queen took the shape of a jenny wren. A feather was considered a charm against disaster. Once a year, in winter, the wren is hunted in a ritual as ancient as Europe.
Starlings often swarm in flocks that form all kings of patterns in the sky called murmurations. Some of these flocks were large enough to blot out the sunlight. These patterns were oracular, and were read by augurs. Despised by farmers, the starling is still considered a lucky bird.
The fairies urged the song thrush to build its nest close to the ground so they could hear it sing. Finding a nest high up in a tree was a sure sign the fairies were unhappy. The flesh of the thrush was said to cure convulsions.
Each male yellowhammer sings a different dialect to establish its territory, learned from its father. This bird was persecuted for the drop of red on its beak, resembling blood.
A nocturnal bird, the swift has long been associated with the dark demons of the other world. They nest high up in cracks of buildings or rocks, but can be seen in the evening, diving and swooping after insects.
The swallow, although destructive and messy, is such good luck that it is encouraged to nest near houses. The return of the swallows is a sign of spring.