I’m guessing that from almost the beginning of human-time birds symbolized various elements of human life. It is interesting that certain birds seem to have been considered more often as being particularly special…both good and bad.
Cranes are revered in Asia as symbols of long life. Cuckoos are seen as a sign of spring in Europe and an omen for a happy marriage. Doves conjure up love and peace and dreaming of birds means happiness is near. Eagles are sacred to Native Americans and their claws and bones are believed to heal illnesses. The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States and stands for endurance, independence, and courage. Owls are seen as prophets of doom and in the Western world, a hooting owl warns of death.
Even Birds that don’t exist or are fancifully depicted have come to symbolize important events for humans. The phoenix is a mythical creature that dies by fire, then rises from its ashes, and thus symbolizes renewed life. Storks, in folklore, somehow deliver babies in starting the life cycle. Folklore also has it that the Raven’s sense of smell is so extreme that it smells death before it comes.
In modern times, birds have been chosen to represent and symbolize their perceived positive characteristics for sporting teams (Atlanta Falcons), States (Texas Mockingbird), Countries (New Zealand Kiwi), books (Oscar the Osprey – had to get that in there), and so on and so on. The bald eagle, by the way, was chosen by the USA in 1782, although Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey. Also it is very interesting to note that the Providence of Nova Scotia chose the Osprey (Oscar would be proud) as its territorial bird.
Why have birds become such important symbols for humankind? Maybe one important reason is their ability to fly, to escape the bonds of gravity…something that humans have only recently been to be able to accomplish. For all of history, humans have been under threat of enemies, animals, natural disasters and the thought of being able to escape those threats by simply flying away has to be part of the answer. Of course, humans are a very observant species and constantly studying the habits of birds. Birds are wonderful creatures to behold and to be “free as a bird” is a very pleasing thought for humans.
So, whatever the reason, the unbelievable variety of birds and their activities gives humans countless opportunities for symbolisms to take hold.
(Sources: Fact Monster; Enchanted Learning)