The set of birds that claim the highest place in Christian symbolism are doves. They are used to depict the Holy Spirit, as well as the virtues of peace, purity, and rest. We'll take a look at those symbolic associations in a bit, but first here's a few surprising facts about doves that you may not know:
- Doves are beloved. Pigeons are despised. Everyone knows this. The only problem is...they're pretty much the exact same kind of bird. Pigeons and doves are all members of the same family, Columbiformes (300+ species in all), and the naming of individual species is fairly arbitrary--for instance, the feral city pigeons that we all love to hate are, properly speaking, a species that for many years was known as "rock doves." And those beautiful, pure-white doves that are used in weddings, paintings, and Christian symbolism? Yeah, they're pigeons--and not even a separate species, just a plumage variation that's specifically bred for. Rock doves, the wild species, are the progenitors not only of feral city pigeons, but also of domestic pigeons, of which white doves are simply one variety. So they might look nice, but they're actually the same feathered miscreants that poop on all our public monuments.
- Pigeons suck. No, really, they suck. Columbiformes are the only group of birds that can drink water through suction. All other birds use the dribble-down method: they get a little water in their beaks, then lift their head up to the sky so that the water can run down their throat. There's an old Ghanaian proverb that connects this trait to gratitude: "Even the chicken, when it drinks, lifts its head to heaven to thank God for the water." But pigeons and doves can just stick their faces in a puddle and suck it up. This led John Stott to refer to them as "the most pagan birds in the world," because they alone do not lift their heads in gratitude when drinking.
- Pigeons and doves have some of the most incredible aerial skill sets of any living thing. Anyone who has watched city pigeons has probably remarked on the speed and agility of their flight. Columbiformes are such good fliers that they have colonized nearly every habitable patch of ground on earth, including the many tiny islands strewn about the Pacific. Their speed and endurance, as well as their uncanny navigational abilities, are among the main reasons why humans have domesticated them so heavily. Pigeons have served as message carriers for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years, even doing so in battlefield situations where, on occasion, they have received medals for heroic service. They are also bred as racers, competing in events that cover hundreds of miles. Their navigational abilities are so impressive that modern science has still not completely figured out just how they find their way home across vast distances of unfamiliar territory. They may use a combination of visual, astronomical, magnetic, auditory, and olfactory cues to achieve this feat (and yes, each of these factors has actually been verified by scientific studies as part of pigeon navigation, and others are still being investigated).
- Weirdly enough, the English name for a group of doves is a "piteousness" (other options are dole, cote, or flight). One of the group names for pigeons is, fittingly, a "dropping" (others are flock or kit).
Now, for the use of doves/pigeons in Christian symbolism. The two most frequent associations are with the Holy Spirit and with peace. In reference to the Holy Spirit, this association is clearly made in the story of Jesus' baptism, where the Holy Spirit "descended on him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22). Even earlier, though, the Bible depicts the Spirit in terms of birdflight: in the creation account of Genesis 1, the Spirit is said to be "hovering" over the waters (a Hebrew word which, when used later in the Bible, is specifically associated with birdflight).
Another major biblical story in which doves feature is the narrative of Noah's ark. After the ark has come to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah twice sends out a dove to see if it can find any dry ground amid the receding waters. On its second return, it bears an olive branch in its beak, a sign of dry ground and growing vegetation. As such, the dove became a symbol of resting in the sure hope of God's promises. Later, this image of the dove and olive branch became specifically associated with the idea of peace, and is now used in that manner by many secular groups as well as religious ones. Doves appear nearly 50 times in Scripture: as appropriate sacrifices to bring to the Lord (Lev. 14:22), as symbols of flight, safety, and rest (Ps. 55:6), of faithful love (Song 1:15), of purity and perfection (Song 5:2, 6:9), of new life and joy (Song 2:12), of repentant mourning (Is. 38:14), of returning to the Lord (Jer. 8:7), and of simplicity and innocence (Matt. 10:16). Doves are also commonly shown in paintings of saints (often appearing with Benedict and Gregory the Great), and the Latin name for dove, Columba, itself became a common Christian name.
So the next time you see a dove or pigeon, let it remind you of the Spirit's abiding presence, and the way that the Lord brings us safely to rest on the mountains of his peace.
(Images - Top: "St Gregory," by Matthias Stom, early 17th cent.; Upper inset right: "A Beauty with Doves," by Charles Joshua Chaplin, 19th cent.; Upper inset left: "Pigeons on the Roof," by Joseph Crawhall III, late 19th or early 20th cent.; Middle inset right: "Eleven Pigeons," by Jiang Tingxi, date unknown; Middle inset left: photo of two mourning doves, by Matthew Burden; Lower inset right: "Baptism of Christ," by Piero della Francesca, c.1450; Lower inset left: "The Dove Returns to Noah," by James Tissot, c.1900)