Lessons from the Birds of Winter

Feb 1, 2021

Debbie Vallandingham, LMSW-ACSW, Bereavement Manager

When you see a red rose, you know it as an expression of love. Similarly, a white dove symbolizes peace. These images have been used for centuries helping us to express and understand the deeper meaning of life through symbols. During the darkest days of winter, filled with gray skies and occasional snow, there is one thing most of us take for granted: the presence of winter birds. Their grace and beauty give us an opportunity to reflect on their symbolism, a focal point to meditate and be mindful in this season of reflection.


“Cardinals appear when angels are near.” Victoria McGovern, Our Wander Life

Of all winter birds, we think of cardinals the most as symbols of grief and loss. Religions throughout the centuries have considered cardinals to be messengers. Indigenous tribes believed that cardinals are associated with change and protection from illness and harm. Native Americans believed that these birds gave them a strong connection to their ancestors, representing devotion, love and even good fortune. Modern stories turn to the facts about cardinals, birds that do not migrate and mate for life. Seeing them stand out with their brilliant red color against the stark white snow, they promise hope for the return of the spring. But the most common bit of modern folklore is that “when a cardinal appears in your yard, it’s a visitor from heaven.” Cardinals have come to symbolize the love and devotion of our departed family and friends. Whenever we see a cardinal we feel our loved ones are near. Today, visits from cardinals also symbolize renewal and the opportunity to celebrate the good things in life.

Mourning Doves

“Oh dove, the sweet ache of your lament. Teach us to sing our grief.” Ode to the Mourning Dove, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio

The mourning dove is named for its haunting and sad cooing sound, which sounds very similar to an owl. But just as the mourning dove symbolizes sorrow, it is a messenger of peace, love and faith. Stories use the voice of the dove as a call to seek and find inner peace. The message of the dove is that death is just a new beginning

Blue Jays

“Pursuing winds that censure us; A February day, The brother of the universe; Was never blown away.” Emily Dickinson, The Blue Jay

Throughout history, the blue jay has been seen as an omen of differing fortunes. For the Aztec, the blue jay symbolized a call to war while in Greek folklore, the blue jay was a trickster, fond of practical jokes and mischief. Today, a blue jay is often seen as a sign of good luck and good things to come. The arrival of a blue jay tells you to be persistent and to keep your spirits up, regardless of how difficult your current situation feels.


“Then piped a tiny voice hard by, Gay and polite, a cheerful cry, “Chick-a-dee-dee!” saucy note; Out of a sound heart and merry throat, As if it said, ‘Good day, good sir! Fine afternoon, old passenger! Happy to meet you in these places, Where January brings few faces.’” Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Chickadee

Chickadees are seen as symbols of good luck and are associated with happiness, truth and knowledge. Native American tribes saw the bird as a messenger from the spirit world that brought knowledge to the tribe. In modern folklore, a chickadee perching near a house suggests that a friend will call. Seeing one of these clever, social birds also helps remind us to be cheerful, playful, and to take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

Birdwatching, a Mindfulness Exercise

During these gloomy days, try bird watching near a birdfeeder, nearby tree or if the weather allows take a walk. Spend a little time paying attention to your senses. Use this time to watch the birds and enjoy their vibrant colors. Watch as they fly into your field of view, gliding to the ground or soaring to a branch. Listen, if you can, to the calls and chirps, whether it’s the mournful coo of the dove or the shrill call of the blue jay. Be mindful of the silence in between the calls.

After you’ve spent some time watching our feathered friends, try reflecting on these things:

If you saw a cardinal:
• Think about the person you are missing and what you would want them to know
• Reflect on what opportunities you have, and what you are grateful for

If you saw a mourning dove:
• Think about new beginnings and projects that you are hoping to start in the near future
• Consider how faith, peace and love find their way into your life

If you saw a blue jay:
• Reflect on your current challenges and know that you have the strength to keep going
• Think about how you will overcome any obstacles in your way

If you saw a chickadee:
• Think about the simple pleasures in life and reflect on the ones that you find enjoyable
• Consider how you can be more cheerful or even playful in the coming week
So, the next time you look outside

Watch the below video to see the lessons of the winter birds in action. Before Deborah and Dorothy lost their mother, they requested that she send them a sign once she had reached heaven. What these sisters experienced was nothing short of a miracle!

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