Birds

BIRDS. Palestine is the home of some 375 kinds of birds, of which perhaps 25 are peculiar to that region. The Bible mentions about 50, using Hebrew or Greek names that can sometimes be identified with particular species of the present. Birds are mentioned in more than two-thirds of the biblical books. In English versions of the Bible there are often differences in the translations of the names of birds. Sometimes the identification of some creature as a bird has been questioned (see, e.g., Peacock and Night Creature below). Occasionally birds are dealt with in groups, but the listing will refer the reader to the main entry in that category.

Where there are differences of translation, comparisons are often made with terms as they occur in different versions—usually KJV, RSV, NASB, and NIV, with special attention given to the last-mentioned as the version on which this volume as a whole is primarily based. Some of the more speculative translations that occur in only one version have been omitted. While the main aim is to put birds in their biblical context, some brief general details of birds are also given.

Bird of Prey. Predators were described by the Hebrew word ’ayit, the word possibly echoing the screaming cry made by hawks, falcons, or kites. However, as vultures grunt or hiss and do not cry, the word may equally be derived from the root meaning “flesh tearing,” which would include vultures.

The Latin word rapto (to seize and carry off) is the root for the general description of birds of prey as raptors, a group that includes some of the largest and strongest birds, all with hook-tipped beaks and sharp, curving claws (talons).

Abraham drove away birds of prey from his sacrifice (Gen.15.11); this is the Bible’s first reference to these troublesome creatures. Job reflected that no bird of prey knew the hidden path of a mine of precious metals (Job.28.7). Isaiah’s prophecy against Cush (Isa.18.6) shows knowledge of the habits of birds of prey—which must also obey the call of God (Isa.46.11).

Bittern. A wading bird of the heron family, equipped with a long pointed bill used for spearing fish, frogs, and other prey. Its speckled plumage aids camouflage in the bittern’s marshland environment, where it easily blends with reeds and other plant life.

With its somewhat mournful call, the bittern was considered a melancholy creature, and therefore likely to live in places far from human habitation, in the wasteland that followed the downfall of Edom (Isa.34.11 kjv) or the decay of Babylon (Isa.14.23 kjv). Nineveh would suffer a similar fate, its terrain becoming a home for the bittern (Zeph.2.14 kjv).

No reference to the bittern is found in the Pentateuch. An alternative translation is given as “porcupine” in ASV and RSV (Isa.34.11) and as “hedgehog” in NASB and RSV (Isa.14.23; RSV only: Zeph.2.14).

NIV translates this word “owl” (Isa.14.23) or specifies a variety of owl (Isa.34.11; Zeph.2.14); such translations are more likely, given the desolation that might be expected to follow the prophesied catastrophes.

Buzzard. A general description of any of a large number of heavily built hawks, mainly genus Buteo. With its short, broad wings and ability to soar, the buzzard is quite easily recognized. The European variety, Buteo buteo, is found from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. The American use of “buzzard” is more widely applied to many types of hawk and vulture. Their main prey consists of small animals and insects, though the buzzard may occasionally attack small birds. It is included in the list of unclean birds (Lev.11.13; Deut.14.12 nasb, rsv).

Carrion Bird. The enemies of Israel would be given as food to all kinds of carrion birds, declared Ezekiel (39:4), the reference being to a variety of flesh-eating birds.

Carrion Vulture. As most vultures consume carrion, i.e., the flesh of dead animals or humans, the prohibition in Lev.11.18 NASB and in Deut.14.17 NASB, RSV, no doubt refers to any of this class of birds.

Chicken. Descended from the wild red jungle fowl of SE Asia, the domestic chicken or fowl is seen in many varieties throughout the world. It is mainly bred for food, the eggs of the female being a useful source of protein. Our Lord observed the hen’s care of its chicks as a striking example of the concern he felt for Jerusalem (Matt.23.37; Luke.13.34). Immature males, cockerels, are usually bred for food purposes, mature males for breeding.

Cock. In biblical times its early morning crowing was associated with the start of a new day (Matt.13.35). The sound had a lamentable meaning for Peter, who denied his Lord before the cock crowed, according to Jesus’ prophecy (Matt.26.74; Mark.14.30; Luke.22.34, Luke.22.61; John.13.38; John.18.27). NIV always renders the word “rooster.”

Cormorant. A diving seabird of the Phalacrocoracidae family, equipped with a long neck and body that can reach a length of three feet (one m.). Although fast and powerful in flight—which is low over water—the cormorant has a rather laborious takeoff. With its diet of fish caught in short dives, the bird’s hooked bill is ideal. Under water the cormorant swims with its feet only, while striking at its prey. Breeding harmoniously in colonies, the cormorant has been tamed in the Orient and trained to catch fish for its human owners. Because of its flesh-eating habits, the cormorant is included in the list of prohibited birds (Lev.11.17; Deut.14.17). In Isa.34.11 the word is translated as “pelican” in ASV, and “hawk” in RSV. Zeph.2.14 gives the word as “pelican” in ASV, and “vulture” in RSV. In both references NIV has “desert owl,” but a marginal note concedes that precise identification is uncertain.

Crane. Any member of the Gruidae family of long-necked, long-legged wading birds, found throughout the world except for South America. The crane somewhat resembles the heron, but is larger and has a heavier bill, a partly naked head, and more compact plumage. When flying, it stretches its long neck forward, its stilt-like legs trailing behind.

The crane’s croak, or honk, may be heard over distances of several miles and is unmistakable. Hezekiah’s lament over his sickness was compared by Isaiah to the chatter of a crane, as if the king spoke loudly of his affliction, then fell away into muttering (Isa.38.14 kjv). NIV uses a different comparison, and there is a difference of opinion as to the bird precisely meant by Isaiah’s text. The Hebrew word ’agar, which means “traveler” or “gatherer,” could equally apply to a swallow as to a crane, especially if the spoken sound of the word is taken into account.

Jeremiah notes that birds, including the crane, know the time of their coming, i.e., their migratory journey (Jer.8.7 kjv), in contrast to man’s often careless view of events. NIV uses “thrush” rather than “crane” in the passages mentioned above, i.e., a member of the family of songbirds, Turdidae.

Cuckoo. A member of the Cuculidae family of mainly insect-eating birds. Some species of cuckoo (kjv “cuckow”) lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, disposing of the existing eggs and/or young. They choose a particular bird species for a permanent fostering arrangement (i.e., they do not move from species to species). American cuckoos are not, however, parasitic in this way. The name of the bird comes from the male’s distinctive cry. A long slender bird reaching a length of some twelve inches (thirty-one cm.), the cuckoo has a flying action similar to that of a hawk, but on ground level it hops in a rather clumsy fashion. It is classed as an unclean bird in Lev.11.16 and Deut.14.15, both KJV. ASV has “sea mew,” RSV “seagull,” NIV “gull.” The gull is a flesh eater, hence condemned for human food.

Cuckow. See Cuckoo.

Desert Owl. See Owl.

Dove, Pigeon. The dove is a medium-sized bird of the family Columbidae, to which the pigeon also belongs, the latter being a somewhat larger bird. Domestic pigeons are descended from the rock dove, Columba livia, and a strong resemblance may be noted to the wild variety. A white domestic pigeon is usually called “the dove of peace,” reproduction drawings showing a twig in its beak, commemorating the dispatch of the dove from the ark by Noah (Gen.8.8-Gen.8.12). Although not outstanding in its appearance, having a short neck and legs, nor in its cooing cry, the dove inspired the psalmist to write that he would indeed possess the wings of the dove (Ps.55.6). In God’s good time, the believer will share such glory as may be compared to the wings of the dove being sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold (Ps.68.13).

Some biblical references to the dove probably refer to the turtle dove (see Turtle Dove) as in Song.2.12, where the cooing of doves was associated with the season of singing.

Hezekiah in contrast mourned about his illness, like a mourning dove (Isa.38.14), like the people in repentance (Isa.59.11). Ezekiel prophesied that those people who escaped the sword in the city would moan like doves of the valley (Ezek.7.16). Yet help was promised to those who flew like doves to their nests (Isa.60.8); that is, those who returned to their true home, which is God. The security of the dove in the clefts of the rocks was noted in Song.2.14. It was not, however, reckoned to be a very intelligent bird, and Ephraim was compared to one, in an unfavorable reflection on his good sense. Yet the NT spoke of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto the head of Jesus Christ at his baptism (Matt 3:18). This divinely given “dove” was indeed of power and grace, in contrast to the doves sold as merchandise in the temple, for ceremonial purification. The OT record clearly shows that doves were allowed for sacrifice because of their abundance: the temple authorities had made it hard for people to make their sacrifice by “cornering the market” in sacrificial doves. Jesus Christ charged his followers to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (10:16), reflecting a prevailing public opinion of the bird.

Eagle. For many centuries the eagle has been adopted as a symbol of power and majesty, appropriately, it might be said, in view of its powers and regal appearance. Carnivorous, equipped with long talons and remarkably keen eyesight, the eagle is a member of the Accipitridae family and is monogamous—mating for life—and using the same nest every year. Nests are built in inaccessible places, far from human and animal marauders. For the most part, the eagle’s diet consists of live prey, not carrion, and stories of the swift appearance of an eagle, carrying away a small animal (a baby lamb, for example) are commonly heard among shepherds. Although the eagle is superbly equipped for flying because of its exceptionally broad wings, it is somewhat ponderous in terms of effective pursuit of prey. Thus it uses a sudden descent and the element of surprise, these characteristics being duly noted by the bird-watchers of Bible times.

An eagle somewhat resembles a vulture, but it has a fully feathered head and, as already noted, prefers live prey. Among the many types found today is the crowned eagle, which may be some three feet (one m.) long and represents Africa’s largest eagle; the snake-hunting harrier eagles of Europe, Asia, and Africa; as well as the lightly built hawk eagles found in the Mediterranean area and South Asia. Eagles were included among the unclean foods listed in Lev.11.1-Lev.11.47.

Although in normal circumstances the town-dweller in Bible times might see an eagle only rarely, such an appearance was not to be forgotten. Indeed, the people of Israel were reminded that they had been borne from Egyptian captivity, as it were, on the wings of eagles (Exod.19.4; Deut.32.11). In similar praise, the psalmist declares that his youth was renewed like that of the eagle (Ps.103.5). Isaiah promises similar power to those who hope in the Lord (Isa.40.31) Two eagle’s wings were provided to transport the woman mentioned in Rev.12.1-Rev.12.17 to the place prepared for her in the desert..

The power of the eagle was noted earlier; for example, the sudden descent of the eagle on its prey was appropriately compared to an attack of a nation that would be “like an eagle swooping down” on a careless Israel (Deut.28.49). Jeremiah prophesied in a similar vein, referring to an enemy equipped with horses swifter than eagles (Jer.4.13). Yet the Lord would prevail even against those enemies who built their nest as high as that of the eagle (Jer.49.16, echoed in Obad.1.4, in reference to Edom).

The face of the eagle was part of Ezekiel’s great vision of living creatures (Ezek.1.10). Later, Ezekiel used two eagles and a vine in his allegory (Ezek.17.1-Ezek.17.24); appropriately, both eagles were “great” and had “powerful wings.” Daniel’s dream of four beasts included a lion with the wings of an eagle (Dan.7.4)—a reference to the mighty kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. Yet, among the warlike similes—necessary to warn a careless Israel—there is graciousness indeed, as that shown to Saul and Jonathan who were in life, swifter than eagles (2Sam.1.23).

Job felt the passage of his days on earth as swift-passing as an eagle swooping on its prey (Job.9.26). In a no-less-reflective mood, the author of Proverbs believed that riches would fly away like an eagle (Prov.23.5).

Falcon. Found world-wide, this member of the Falconidae family is equipped with long, pointed wings, a powerful hooked beak, and a long tail. It is classed as unclean in Lev.11.14 and Deut.14.13; RSV translates the Hebrew word as “kite.”

Species of falcon include the peregrine, kestrel, merlin, and South American caracara. Some nine classes of falcon were known in Bible times, though the Bible record may refer to kite or scavenger (Heb. dayyāh) or to falcon (Heb. ’ayyah), according to the translator’s preference. Isaiah’s prophecy against Edom declared that falcons would gather there following the promised retribution (Isa.34.15).

Fowl. In modern speech “fowl” most often refers to “domestic fowl” and to poultry rather than to birds in general. Job.35.11 praises God for making men wiser than the birds of the air, or fowl, as the word might be translated. Jesus encouraged his disciples that they were indeed worth much more than many birds (Luke.12.24)—in the context of God’s awareness of even a single bird’s death, rather than to any thought about the cost of poultry in the marketplace.

However, fowl in the sense of poultry, or “choice fowl,” is mentioned in the OT. It was included in Solomon’s inventory of daily provisions (1Kgs.4.23), while the 150 Jews and officials who shared Nehemiah’s table enjoyed meat of poultry as well as of oxen and choice sheep (Neh.5.18).

That people in Bible times set snares for wild fowl is clearly indicated in Ps.91.3 and Ps.124.7, where man’s deliverance from his enemy is compared to the escape of a bird from a fowler’s snare. An alternative translation of “fowler” (Heb. yākôsh) is “partridge catcher.” The Hebrew word is also the root for the name “Jacob.”

The partridge (1Sam.26.20; Jer.17.11) was a medium-sized game bird, with plump body and a short tail. Known to the inhabitants of Bible lands as a delicacy, it was successfully introduced to the USA by European settlers.

Gier Eagle. An alternative translation in KJV (Lev.11.18; Deut.14.17) to “carrion vulture,” which elsewhere is translated “osprey” (so niv).

Glede. A vulture or hawk included in the list of unclean birds (Deut.14.13 kjv).

Great Owl. See Owl.

Gull. See Cuckoo.

Hawk. A general name applied to several small to medium-sized diurnal birds of prey, having short, rounded wings, hooked beaks, and claws. Kites, buzzards, harriers, falcons, and caracaras are included in the generic description, together with other members of the genus, Accipiter. All hawks were unclean and were not to be eaten (Lev.11.16; Deut.14.15). The impressive flying abilities of the hawk were compared to those of the eagle as the Lord answered Job out of the storm (Job.39.26-Job.39.27). Found world-wide, hawks usually nest in trees, though some, such as the marsh hawk, prefer a ground-level nest site in a suitable grassy environment. Others nest in cliffs.

Hen. See Chicken.

Heron. Listed among the unclean birds in Lev.11.19 and Deut.14.18, the heron is a long-necked, long-legged wading bird of the Ardeidae family, breeding in colonies with others in suitably high trees. Found throughout the world, herons are most concentrated in tropical regions, usually in marshy terrain. During biblical times large numbers of them populated the swamps surrounding Lake Huleh, and they were common also on the Jordan and the Kishon and on the coastal regions of Palestine. The heron’s diet consists of fish, frogs, and other reptiles, caught while wading unobtrusively in shallow water. With its sharp-pointed, long and straight bill, the heron is ideally equipped to catch its prey.

Hoopoe. A solitary and somewhat timid bird, possessing a slender, down-curved bill and a long black-tipped erect crest, the hoopoe is found from southern Europe and Africa to SE Asia. It secures its diet of insects by thrusting its bill into the ground and foraging. This, together with its habit of fouling its own nest, may show why it was considered unclean (Lev.11.19; Deut.14.18 nasb, rsv, niv).

Horned Owl. See Owl.

Ibis. Included in the list of unclean birds (Lev.11.17 rsv), the ibis is a wading bird related to the stork and found mainly in tropical regions. It was regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the ibis was considered so sacred that anybody who killed one even accidentally was put to death.

Kite. A member of the hawk family, equipped with a short beak and long, pointed wings, the kite is found world-wide in warm regions. Its diet consists mostly of carrion and small birds, though some kites live on insects. Lightly built, the kite flies by a slow flapping of its wings and by effective gliding action. Its scavenging characteristics may account for its inclusion in the list of prohibited birds (Lev.11.14; Deut.14.13). American kites include the swallow-tailed kite, a black-and-white bird some two feet (one-half m.) in length, and the white-tailed kite, one of the few American birds of prey increasing in population.

Lapwing. A large, greenish-black and white plover found in Europe and Asia, the lapwing (sometimes known as the peewit) shows erratic flight during its breeding season. The Hebrew word in some versions (niv, rsv, asv) is rendered “hoopoe,” but as “lapwing” in the KJV list of prohibited birds (Lev.11.19; Deut.14.18).

Lilith. See Night Creature.

Little Owl. See Owl.

Night Creature, Night Monster. A word appearing in an account of the desolation of Edom (Isa.34.14 asv), and translated by many different terms. KJV has “screech owl,” RV mg. “Lilith,” RSV “night hag,” NIV “night creature.” Some have suggested a mythological interpretation of the term (Heb. lîlîth), but this finds scanty factual support. The reference could be to any of those nocturnal birds thought to bring omens, or to which superstitition might be attached.

Nighthawk. The name appears in the list of prohibited birds (Lev.11.16 kjv, rsv; Deut.14.15 kjv). Driver suggests “short-eared owl,” NIV has “screech owl.” The nighthawk, like the whippoorwill, is a small-beaked, insect-eating bird with impressive flying abilities.

Osprey, Ospray. The word is found among the list of unclean birds in Lev.11.18 and Deut.14.17 (rsv has “vulture” and “carrion vulture”). A large bird of the hawk family, the osprey is found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It has dark plumage with white underparts. Feeding on fish, the osprey is well-endowed with roughened pads on its feet in order to grasp its slippery prey.

Ossifrage. See Osprey.

Ostrich. The largest of all birds, up to eight feet (2.5 m.) tall, this nonflying, fast-running bird of Africa and Arabia is mainly vegetarian, able to do without water for considerable periods. Its long legs have two toes on each foot, and its long, featherless neck accounts for about half the total body weight. It is well adapted for its life in hot, dusty areas. In the wild, the ostrich lives in flocks and enjoys the company of other grazing animals. Job’s essay on the ostrich (Job.39.13-Job.39.18) confirms a keen observation of the bird. The author of Lamentations similarly thought ostriches were heartless (Lam.4.3). ASV translates Job’s melancholy as being that of the ostrich’s companion, rather than that of the owl, as translated elsewhere (Job.39.29). Jeremiah also referred to the dwelling of the ostrich among other desert creatures (Jer.50.39 nasb, rsv), just as Micah links the ostrich with desolation (Mic 1:18 asv, rsv).

Owl. Any member of the order Strigformes, nocturnal birds of prey found throughout the world, in three families: typical owls (Strigidae), barn and grey owls (Tytonidae), and bay owls (Phodilidae). Equipped with a short, hooked beak set in a broad head, the owl has disc-shaped, forward-looking eyes, fringed with stiff feathers. Hearing and vision are acutely developed, fitting the owl for its nocturnal hunting pursuits. Prey consists of small birds and rodents. Hebrew names for the owl reflected the bird’s own cry and nature. Thus Job confessed that he had become a companion of owls (Job.30.29), and the psalmist felt that he had become like an owl among the ruins (Ps.102.6). Isaiah declared that the great owl, desert owl, and screech owl would nest in the ruins of Edom (Isa.34.11), though the NIV footnote points out that precise identification is uncertain. Isaiah also referred to the owls nesting among the ruins of Edom in 34:15, in common with Jeremiah’s own judgment on Babylon (Jer.50.39).

The “great owl” is listed among the unclean birds in Lev.11.18 (rsv “ibis”) and in Deut.14.16. The “horned owl” also is listed among the unclean birds (Lev.11.16; Deut.14.15). Listed there also is the “little owl” (Lev.11.17; Deut.14.16), the most common owl in Palestine. The latter is noteworthy in its seeking of isolation, though its hoarse cry announces its presence to travelers.

Partridge. A member of the order of birds to which chickens belong. Because of their swift and sneaky running, they are excellent game birds. When Saul was hunting him, David compared himself to a partridge (1Sam.26.20). It was supposed that partridges robbed eggs from other birds and hatched them, a symbol of getting riches unfairly (Jer.17.11).

Peacock. A male game bird, Paro cristatus, from India and SE Asia, best known for its handsome, long tail feathers, brought into a fan-shaped display during courtship. With their brightly colored bodies, peacocks were shown off in any self-respecting court in the ancient world and were a common feature of English country houses until fairly recent times. Large numbers of peacocks were imported for Solomon’s palace (1Kgs.10.22; 2Chr.9.21 kjv, rsv, nasb). NIV, however, translates the Hebrew as “baboon” (See Animals). The Lord inquired of Job if he gave “goodly wings unto the peacocks” (Job.39.13 kjv), though NIV refers here to “ostrich” (cf. asv).

Pelican. A gregarious web-footed water bird, equipped with a very large bill, beneath which is suspended a pouch for storing fish. The white pelican of Africa and Asia is the best known species, though pelicans may be found in many parts of the world. With a wingspan of up to ten feet (three m.) and a length up to six feet (almost two m.), the pelican is one of the world’s largest birds. Its pursuit and capture of fish is helped by the webs between all four toes. Its flesh diet is one reason for its inclusion in the list of unclean birds (Lev.11.18; Deut.14.17 kjv, rsv, nasb; niv has “desert owl”).

The psalmist compared himself to a pelican in the wilderness (Ps.102.6 kjv, nasb, rsv), yet the pelican was to be incorporated into church tradition and even church architectural embellishment, because of a legend surrounding the bird. From early Christian times the pelican was regarded as pious. When feeding its young, the nesting adult excretes a liquid that adds a reddish tinge to its throat and breast, emphasized as the bird preens its feathers. It was suggested that the pelican was somehow sustaining its young with its own blood, and the “lesson drawn from nature” was soon offered to the saints.

Pigeon. See Dove, Pigeon.

Quail. A small migratory game bird, in some 130 species. The quail lives at ground level, in pasture, scrub-land, arable crops, etc. Ready to fly short distances at a comparatively rapid speed, the quail has some similarity to the partridge but is somewhat smaller, reaching a length of about seven inches (eighteen cm.). Like the partridge, the quail is a dust-bather and shares a similar diet of fruit, leaves, and insects.

In Bible times the quail was seen in large flocks, traveling most often over short distances. Its abundance as food for the Israelites in the wilderness came as large numbers of the Coturnix quail fell exhausted to the ground following the birds’ long flight from Africa, where they had spent the winter (Exod.16.13; Ps.105.40). The abundance is graphically described in Num.11.31. The flesh of the quail is delicious, as are its eggs.

North American quail include the California or valley quail, as well as the desert quail—both being important game birds possessing forward curling head plume and somewhat stronger bills than are found in species of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Raven. This large bird—the male of which can reach a length of two feet (one-half m.)—is a member of the crow family. It is found especially in the northern hemisphere in cliffs and mountainous terrain. In urban areas it is seen as a scavenger and will eat all kinds of animal flesh including carrion. Its head and shoulders are larger than those of a crow, and its soaring action is similar to that of a buzzard.

Leviticus 11:15 prohibits the eating of any kind of raven. Noah sent a raven from the ark to ascertain if a landfall might be made (Gen.8.7), apparently forgetting that, as the raven was a bird of prey, it was unlikely to return, given the abundance of carrion exposed by the receding waters. Nor did the raven have the homing instinct of the dove that subsequently carried out Noah’s errand.

The record of Noah’s dispatch of the raven and its apparent disloyalty, together with the bird’s deep hoarse croak, accounts for some old beliefs. Prov.30.17 declares that any who mocked their fathers might expect to have their eye pecked out by the ravens of the valley. Yet ravens were used by God to feed Elijah (1Kgs.17.4), though some scholars have suggested here an alternative rendering to have Elijah fed by “human ravens,” i.e., itinerant peddlers. Another suggestion is that Elijah was fed by citizens of the nearby town of Orbo. However, as ravens are ever generous in feeding their young, leaving some nests crowded with meat that could be eaten by a human being (after cooking or other preparation), the story has some validity. Ravens were themselves fed by the Lord (Job.38.41). Ravens would nest in the ruins of Edom, together with other birds of desolation (Isa.34.11).

Jesus referred to the ravens in his encouragement of the disciples and their immense significance to his heavenly Father (Luke.12.24).

Ravenous Bird. See Bird of Prey.

Rooster. See Cock.

Screech Owl. See Owl; Night Monster.

Sea Gull, Sea Mew. See Cuckoo.

Sparrow. A small, short-beaked, seed-eating bird—noisy, active, and prolific. The house sparrow, member of genus Passer, possesses brown/gray streaked plumage and was originally native to northern Europe and Asia. It has been introduced into Australasia and North America, where it is sometimes called the “English sparrow.” In fact, it is classed by ornithologists as a finch, not as a sparrow. True sparrows, with other finches, buntings, and grosbeaks, are members of the family Fringillidae, a large group with many subdivisions.

In Bible times protection to the sparrow was provided within the temple precincts (Ps.84.3). Sparrows were so cheap to buy that the purchaser of four would get a fifth free. Yet even this seemingly unimportant bird was of great concern to the Lord, without whose knowledge no sparrow fell to the ground, but who accounted people far more highly (Matt.10.29, Matt.10.31; Luke.12.6, Luke.12.7). KJV refers to the psalmist’s identification as being that of a sparrow alone on a housetop, a somewhat unusual sight (Ps.102.7). NIV renders “bird” rather than “sparrow,” for the Hebrew word possibly means “rock thrust,” a bird known to prefer isolated places.

Stork. A large migratory bird of the Ciconiidae family, nesting in trees. Equipped with long legs, neck, and bill, the stork usually lives on a diet of small animals caught at ground level. Some species, including the maribou stork of Africa and the adjutant stork of India, feed on carrion.

Nesting characteristics of the stork “in the pine trees” were noted by the psalmist (Ps.104.17), and Jeremiah confirmed that the stork knew its appointed seasons (Jer.8.7). Here, as elsewhere in the passage, Jeremiah contrasted the alertness of the bird to natural law with the carelessness of men. Zechariah’s vision included women equipped with the powerful wings of a stork (Zech.5.9). The stork was included in the list of prohibited birds (Lev.11.19; Deut.14.18).

Swallow. An insect-eating bird of the Hirundinidae family, small and with a long forked tail and long wings. Among the most agile of birds, it captures its insect prey while in flight. Its skill in executing maneuvers was noted by the author of Proverbs (Deut.26.2) while the piercing chatterlike call of the swallow was compared to the chattering of Hezekiah during his illness (Isa.38.14 nasb, kjv, rsv). Five species are still found in Bible lands. Two of these are known also in the United States—the bank swallow and the barn swallow, the latter recognized by its deeply forked tail feathers.

Swan. A large aquatic bird in the same family as the duck and goose, of genus Cygnus. Equipped with webbed feet and a long slender neck, the swan is usually white and mute. In the list of unclean birds it is called “water hen” in RSV, “horned owl” in ASV, and “white owl” in NIV (Lev.11.18; Deut.14.16).

Swift. Any member of the Apodidae family of migratory birds, resembling swallows and having long wings reminiscent of the shape of a scythe. That the swift knew the time of its seasons (i.e., for migration) was confirmed by Jeremiah (Deut.8.7, nasb, niv). The record of Hezekiah’s illness also refers to the swift (Isa.38.14 niv) in preference to the use of “swallow” found in KJV, NASB, RSV.

Thrush. See Crane.

Turtledove. Found in southern Europe and in Africa, the turtledove—a wild pigeon of migratory habit (Streptopelia turtur)—is similar to the “mourning dove,” which sings early in spring. Song.2.12 probably refers to such a bird. These were the birds that, abundant in number, were readily acquired for ceremonial sacrifice (Gen.15.9). Purification after childbirth involved sacrifice of this bird or a young pigeon (Lev.12.6-Lev.12.8). It was used in ceremonial cleansing (Num.6.10). Translations vary in Jer.8.7: ‘dove” (neb, niv), “turtle” (kjv), and “turtledove” (jb, mlb, nasb, rsv).

Vulture. A large carrion-eating bird equipped with a hooked beak and strong claws. Some twenty species in the order Falconiformes have featherless heads and necks, as well as large crops. The Andean condor is probably the best known of vultures found in the American continent, though vultures exist in central Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. Also found in America is the black vulture, sometimes called “black buzzard” or “carrion crow,” and the king vulture.

One of the largest and heaviest birds in the world, the cinereous (gray colored) vulture (Aegypius monachus) has a wingspread of some nine feet (three m.), is three or more feet (one m.) long, and weighs over twenty-seven pounds (twelve kg.). It is found in southern Europe, northern and eastern Africa, and the Middle East to Afghanistan and India. Another impressive member of the species is the Nubian or lappet-faced vulture found in Africa.

Little seems to discourage these large birds in their search for food, and the people of Bible times were accustomed to seeing vultures—and not merely on the battlefield or where carrion was plentiful. Sometimes they would descend to make a raid in some town. Some five species were known in those times. The bearded vulture was easily identified by its full-feathered head and black moustache feathers. The Egyptian vulture was a smaller bird with white feathers on its head, black flight feathers, and a weak, slender beak. Sometimes called Pharaoh’s chicken, the Egyptian vulture grew to a length of about two feet (one-half m.). Three further types found in the area were all black and virtually bald.


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(`ayiT; Greek variously ta peteina (Mt 13:4) ta ornea tou ouranou (Re 19:17) ornis (Mt 23:37; Lu 13:34) Latin, avis; Old English "brid"):

I. Meaning of the Word.

All authorities agree that the exact origin of the word bird, as we apply it to feathered creatures, is unknown.

1. In Early Hebrew:

The Hebrew `ayiT means to "tear and scratch the face," and in its original form undoubtedly applied to birds of prey. It is probable that no spot of equal size on the face of the globe ever collected such numbers of vultures, eagles and hawks as ancient Palestine. The land was so luxuriant that flocks and herds fed from the face of Nature. In cities, villages, and among tent-dwellers incessant slaughter went on for food, while the heavens must almost have been obscured by the ascending smoke from the burning of sacrificed animals and birds, required by law of every man and woman. From all these slain creatures the offal was thrown to the birds. There were no guns; the arrows of bowmen or "throw sticks" were the only protection against them, and these arms made no noise to frighten feathered creatures, and did small damage. So it easily can be seen that the birds would increase in large numbers and become so bold that men were often in actual conflict with them, and no doubt their faces and hands were torn and scratched.

2. In Later Usage:

Later, as birds of song and those useful for food came into their lives, the word was stretched to cover all feathered creatures. In the King James Version `ayiT is translated "fowl," and occurs several times: "And when the fowls came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away" (Ge 15:11). "They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth; and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them" (Isa 18:6). "There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen" (Job 28:7). The American Standard Revised Version changes these and all other references to feathered creatures to "birds," making a long list. The Hebrew `ayiT in its final acceptance was used in Palestine as "bird" is with us.

3. In Old English:

Our earliest known form of the word is the Old English "brid," but they applied the term to the young of any creature. Later its meaning was narrowed to young produced from eggs, and the form changed to "bird."

II. Natural History of Birds.

The first known traces of birds appear in the formation of the Triassic period, and are found in the shape of footprints on the red sandstone of the Connecticut valley.

1. Earliest Traces and Specimens:

This must have been an ancient sea bed over which stalked large birds, leaving deeply imprinted impressions of their feet. These impressions baked in the sun, and were drifted full of fine wind-driven sand before the return of the tide. Thus were preserved to us the traces of 33 species of birds all of which are proven by their footprints to have been much larger than our birds of today. The largest impressions ever found measured 15 inches in length by 10 in width, and were set from 4 to 6 ft. apart. This evidence would form the basis for an estimate of a bird at least four times as large as an ostrich. That a bird of this size ever existed was not given credence until the finding of the remains of the dinornis in New Zealand. The largest specimen of this bird stood 10 1/2 ft. in height. The first complete skeleton of a bird was found in the limestone of the Jurassic period in Solenhofen, Bavaria. This bird had 13 teeth above and 3 below, each set in a separate socket, wings ending in three-fingered claws much longer than the claws of the feet, and a tail of 20 vertebrae, as long as the body, having a row of long feathers down each side of it, the specimen close to the size of a crow. The first preserved likeness of a bird was found frescoed on the inside of a tomb of Maydoon, and is supposed to antedate the time of Moses 3,000 years. It is now carefully preserved in the museum of Cairo. The painting represents six geese, four of which can be recognized readily as the ancestors of two species known today. Scientists now admit that Moses was right in assigning the origin of birds to the water, as their structure is closer reptilian than mammalian, and they reproduce by eggs. To us it seems a long stretch between the reptile with a frame most nearly bird-like and a feathered creature, but there is a possibility that forms making closer connection yet will be found.

2. Structural Formation:

The trunk of a bird is compact and in almost all instances boat-shaped. Without doubt prehistoric man conceived his idea of navigation and fashioned his vessel from the body of a water bird, and then noticed that a soaring bird steered its course with its tail and so added the rudder. The structural formation of a bird is so arranged as to give powerful flight and perfect respiration. In the case of a few birds that do not fly, the wings are beaten to assist in attaining speed in running, as the ostrich, or to help in swimming under the water, as the auk. The skull of a young bird is made up of parts, as is that of man or animal; but with age these parts join so evenly that they appear in a seamless formation. The jaws extend beyond the face, forming a bill that varies in length and shape with species, and it is used in securing food, in defense, feather dressing, nest building--in fact it is a combination of the mouth and hand of man. The spine is practically immovable, because of the ribs attached to the upper half and the bony structure supporting the pelvic joints of the lower. In sharp contrast with this the neck is formed of from 10 to 23 vertebrae, and is so flexible that a bird can turn its head completely around, a thing impossible to man or beast. The breast bone is large, strong, and provided with a ridge in the middle, largest in birds of strong flight, smallest in swimmers, and lacking only in birds that do not fly, as the ostrich. The wings correspond to the arms of man, and are now used in flight and swimming only. Such skeletons as the Archeopteryx prove that the bones now combined in the tip of the wing were once claws. This shows that as birds spread over land and developed wing power in searching longer distances for food or when driven by varying conditions of climate, the wings were used more in flight, and the claws gradually joined in a tip and were given covering that grew feathers, while the bill became the instrument for taking food and for defense. At the same time the long tail proving an encumbrance, it gradually wore away and contracted to the present form. Studied in detail of bony structure, muscle, and complicated arrangement of feathers of differing sizes, the wing of a bird proves one of Nature’s marvels. The legs are used in walking or swimming, the thigh joint being so enveloped in the body that the true leg is often mistaken for it. This makes the knee of a man correspond to the heel of a bird, and in young birds of prey especially, the shank or tarsus is used in walking, until the bones harden and the birds are enabled to bear their weight on the feet and straighten the shank. The toes vary with species. Pliny classified birds by them: "The first and principal difference and distinction in birds is taken from their feet; for they have either hooked talons, as Hawkes, or long round claws as Hens, or else they be broad, flat and whole- footed as Geese." Flight is only possible to a bird when both wings are so nearly full-feathered that it balances perfectly. In sleep almost every bird places its head under its wing and stands on one foot. The arrangement by which this is accomplished, without tiring the bird in the least, is little short of miraculous and can be the result only of slow ages of evolution. In the most finished degree this provision for the comfort of the bird is found among cranes and other long- legged water birds. The bone of one part of the leg fits into the bone of the part above, so that it is practically locked into place with no exertion on the part of the bird. At the same time the muscles that work the claws, cross the joints of the leg so that they are stretched by the weight of the bird, and with no effort, it stands on earth or perches on a branch. This explains the question so frequently asked as to why the feet of a perching bird do not become so cramped and tired that it falls.

3. Birds’ Food, Blood, etc.:

Birds feed according to their nature, some on prey taken alive, some on the carrion of dead bodies, some on fish and vegetable products of the water, some on fruit seed, insects and worms of the land. Almost every bird indulges in a combination of differing foods. Their blood is from 12 degrees to 16 degrees warmer than that of the rest of the animal kingdom, and they exhibit a corresponding exhilaration of spirits. Some indulge in hours of sailing and soaring, some in bubbling notes of song, while others dart near earth in playful dashes of flight. Birds are supposed to be rather deficient in the senses of taste and touch, and to have unusually keen vision. They reproduce by eggs that they deposit in a previously selected and prepared spot, and brood for a length of time varying with the species. The young of birds of prey, song birds, and some water birds, remain in the nests for differing lengths of time and are fed by the old birds; while others of the water birds and most of the game birds leave the nest as soon as the down is dry, and find food as they are taught by their elders, being sheltered at night so long as needful.

III. Birds of the Bible.

The birds of the Bible were the same species and form as exist in Palestine today. Because of their wonderful coloring, powerful flight, joyous song, and their similarity to humanity in home-making and the business of raising their young, birds have been given much attention, and have held conspicuous place since the dawn of history. When the brain of man was young and more credulous than today he saw omens, signs and miracles in the characteristic acts of birds, and attributed to them various marvelous powers: some were considered of good omen and a blessing, and some were bad and a curse.

1. Earliest Mention:

The historians of the Bible frequently used birds in comparison, simile, and metaphor. They are first mentioned in Ge 7:14,15, "They, and every beast after its kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort." This is the enumeration of the feathered creatures taken into the ark to be preserved for the perpetuation of species after the flood abated. They are next found in the description of the sacrifice of Abram, where it was specified that he was to use, with the animals slaughtered, a turtle dove and a young pigeon, the birds not to be divided. It is also recorded that the birds of prey were attracted by the carcasses as described in Ge 15:9-11, "And he said unto him, Take me a heifer three years old, and a she-goat three years old, and a ram three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. And he took him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other: but the birds divided he not. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away." Palestine abounded in several varieties of "doves" (which see) and their devotion to each other, and tender, gentle characteristics had marked them as a loved possession of the land; while the clay cotes of pigeons were reckoned in establishing an estimate of a man’s wealth.

2. Used in Sacrifice:

In an abandon of gratitude to God these people offered of their best-loved and most prized possessions as sacrifice; and so it is not surprising to find the history of burnt offerings frequently mentioning these birds which were loved and prized above all others. Their use is first commanded in Le 1:14-17, "And if his oblation to Yahweh be a burnt-offering of birds, then he shall offer his oblation of turtle-doves, or of young pigeons. And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off its head , and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be drained out on the side of the altar; and he shall take away its crop with the filth thereof, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, in the place of the ashes." Again in Le 5:7-10, we read: "And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his trespass- offering for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, unto Yahweh; one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering." Throughout the Bible these birds figure in the history of sacrifice (Le 12:8; 14:4-8; Nu 6:10, etc.).

3. Other References:

The custom of weaving cages of willow wands, in which to confine birds for pets, seems to be referred to when Job asks (Job 41:5): + "Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? Or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?" - See Job 12:7: + "But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; And the birds of the heavens, and they shall tell thee." David was thinking of the swift homeward flight of an eagle when he wrote: "In Yahweh do I take refuge: How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?" (Ps 11:1).

His early days guarding the flocks of his father no doubt suggested to him the statement found in Ps 50:11: "I know all the birds of the mountains; And the wild beasts of the field are mine" (the Revised Version margin, "in my mind"). In describing Lebanon, the Psalmist wrote of its waters: "By them the birds of the heavens have their habitation; They sing among the branches" (Ps 104:12). - He mentioned its trees: + "Where the birds make their nests: As for the stork, the fir-trees are her house" (Ps 104:17). - See also Ps 78:27; 148:10.


Gene Stratton-Porter