There is a wide variety of species of birds in the world and an equally wide variety of symbolism associated with each. In general terms, birds are symbolic of freedom because of their ability to fly, making them seem boundless. Throughout history, man has found the flight of birds to be intriguing and enchanting. Birds were often seen as a connection to the heavens or the after-world. Most types of birds instill positive feelings in people. Likewise, most bird tattoos have positive meanings, although the precise significance differs by culture and region.
Robins and bluebirds are associated with the coming of spring and the renewal of the earth. Following a cold, stark winter, these little birds signal the coming of fairer weather and easier times. As flowers blossom and leaves bud (birds are often accompanied with flower tattoo designs and cherry blossom tattoo designs), the two birds are among the first creatures to reappear. Their bright colors are cheerful against a bleak background and their presence indicates an end to the bad weather of winter.
Because of this, both birds are symbolic of renewal and rebirth, of hopefulness and optimism. Spring is an uplifting time of year and these birds are signs of this hopefulness and positiveness. Similarly, the crane is China's symbol of happiness.
Doves are considered symbols of peace. They are gentle in nature and meek in temperament. Although they come in a variety of colors, the traditional dove is white. White is the color of purity and wholesomeness. In Western culture, white is symbolic of innocence and virtue.
Owls, because of their legendary relationship with wizards, are considered wise and intelligent birds. They seem serious, intellectual, and reserved. And, because they are nocturnal, there is something secretive and mysterious about them.
Other predatory birds, like hawks and eagles, are often linked to nations or political powers. The Bald Eagle, for example, is the national bird of the United States. Tattoos that incorporate these eagles are seen as patriotic and loyal to America, upholding American values.
Not all birds have such pleasant meanings, however. Peacocks, which are revered for their beauty, are well-known symbols of vanity.
Roosters, symbolic of France, are considered cocky for their posturing and strutting.
In North America and much of Western culture, blackbirds, crows, and ravens have negative associations. They are considered cunning, sneaky tricksters who succeed by underhanded deeds and manipulation. Ravens are bad omens and signs of ill fortune in the Arab world and Britain. In Egypt, however, two crows represent monogamy, loyalty, and faithfulness.
For sailors, bird tattoos have special significance. When a sailor has traveled a great distance, a bird tattoo or a nautical tattoo design, particularly swallow tattoo designs, can commemorate this voyage.
Similar traditions dictate that a bird tattoo can mark the first crossing of the Equator or a safe return to port. Birds have excellent navigational skills and are very adept at finding their way home, even from great distances. Though they travel and embark on long journeys, they are rarely ever lost. Furthermore, birds are evidence of nearby land and are often the first indication sailors have that the harbor is close.
Contrastingly, a bird that is maimed with a broken wing and unable to fly represents hopelessness, lost dreams, and despair. A feeling of being trapped or stifled is embodied by a caged or bound bird. In a cage, the bird's wings are useless. His ability to fly is stifled. As such, a caged bird might represent stifled creativity or artistic oppression, in addition to physical restrictions. A dead dove could symbolize war or fighting. Likewise, a wounded crane could represent unhappiness, sorrow, loss, or mourning.
People who are interested in bird tattoos should know that there is an enormous amount of very different symbolism connected to birds. Not only is the species of bird pertinent to the meaning, but also the positioning. A bird that is supposed to symbolize freedom and liberation should not be caged or even perched. Birds are freest when they are in flight. Likewise, a bright, tropical bird is a poor choose to represent sadness or depression as they are usually connected to adventure and exotic locations.
Recent tattoo trends include a variety of retro-styled tattoos from historic sailor designs. Because of this, many bird tattoos are of swallows or bluebirds, which the sailors favored. Eagle tattoos are popular for their patriotic associations and are commonly tattooed with other symbols of American pride
Perhaps in response to the 1990s butterfly trend, hummingbirds are increasingly chosen for tattoos. They are small, delicate, and beautiful, which gives them feminine appeal. Birds of prey tend to be favored by men, who choose to tattoo eagles, hawks, and falcons. There is something noble and majestic about these birds.
In contrast, ravens and crows create much more ominous tattoos as they are birds of carrion, feeding upon what is already dead.