Birds of the Bible – Names of Birds Study Introduction

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  by AestheticPhotos

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) by AestheticPhotos

There have been several articles here about the Names of the Birds. See:

Now we are going to look at the Names of the Birds from another angle. I received this comment on the Clean vs Unclean blog.

Lee, my search on the topic of clean and unclean birds led met to a Wikipedia article and I discovered that when you look at the Hebrew words (found in the Masoretic text) for the names of various unclean birds, they sound like descriptions, ex. “bone breaker”, “plunger”, “one who darts”, and even “vomiting”. So perhaps the reason we don’t have “clear rules” listed (something I’ve wondered for a long time) is because the traits and characteristics were there all along, but not knowing Hebrew, we had no idea. Anyway, check it out

It is a very interesting article and will take some digging to discover some more insight into these birds and how they are named. If you have been following this blog, you know that it has been curious to me how the different versions of the Bible have given different names for the birds. Maybe we can solve some of those mysteries. It won’t be done in one article. That is for sure.

First let’s look at some highlights from the Wikipedia article (with editing).


Great Horned Owl - Lowry Pk Zoo by Lee

Great Horned Owl – Lowry Pk Zoo by Lee


In regard to birds, no general rule is given, and instead Leviticus 11:13-19 and Deuteronomy 14:11-18 explicitly list the prohibited birds: The masoretic text lists the birds as:

  • nesher
  • peres (bone breaker)
  • ozniyah (feminine form of oz, meaning strong)
  • ra’ah ([that which] darts, in the sense of rapid)
  • ayyah
  • oreb
  • bat yaanah (daughter of howling)
  • tahmas ([one who] scratches the face)
  • shahaf ([one which] atrophies)
  • netz
  • kos (cup)
  • shalak (plunger)
  • yanshuf (twilight)
  • tinshemet (blower/breather)
  • qa’at (vomiting)
  • racham (tenderness/affection)
  • hasidah (devoted)
  • anafah ([one which] sniffs sharply, in the sense of anger)
  • dukifat
  • atalef

The list in Deuteronomy has an additional bird, the dayyah, which seems to be a combination of da’ah and ayyah, and may be a scribal error; the Talmud regards it as a duplication of ayyah. This, and the other terms are vague and difficult to translate, but there are a few further descriptions, of some of these birds, elsewhere in the Bible:

  • The ayyah is mentioned again in the Book of Job, where it is used to describe a bird distinguished by its particularly good sight.
  • The bat yaanah is described by the Book of Isaiah as living in desolate places, and the Book of Micah states that it emits a mournful cry
  • The qa’at appears in the Book of Zephaniah, where it is portrayed as nesting on the columns of a ruined city; the Book of Isaiah identifies it as possessing a marshy and desolate kingdom.
  • The septuagint versions of the lists are more helpful, as in almost all cases the bird is clearly identifiable:
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (Coccyzus pluvialis) ©WikiC

Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (Coccyzus pluvialis) ©WikiC

  • aeton (eagle)
  • grypa (ossifrage)
  • haliaetos (sea-eagle)
  • gyps (vulture)
  • ictinia (kite)
  • corax (raven)
  • stouthios (ostrich)
  • glaux (owl)
  • laros (gull)
  • hierax (hawk)
  • nycticorax (night raven)
  • cataractes (cormorant)
  • porphyrion (“purple [thing]”)
  • cycnos (swan)
  • ibis
  • pelican
  • charadrios (plover)
  • herodios (heron)
  • epops (hoopoe)
  • nycturia (bat)
  • meleagris (guineafowl)

Although the first ten of the birds identified by the Septuagint seem to fit the descriptions of the masoretic text, the ossifrage (Latin for bone breaker) being a good example, the correspondence is less clear for most of the remaining birds; it is also obvious that the list in Leviticus, or the list in Deuteronomy, or both, are in a different order in the Septuagint, compared to the masoretic text. Attempting to determine the correspondence is problematic; for example, the pelican may correspond to qa’at (vomiting), in reference to the pelican’s characteristic behaviour, but it may also correspond to kos (cup), as a reference to the pelican’s jaw pouch. An additional complexity arises from the fact that the porphyrion has not yet been identified, and classical Greek literature merely identifies a number of species that are not the porphyrion, including the peacock, grouse, and robin, and implies that the porphyrion is the cousin of the kingfisher; from these meagre clarifications, the porphyrion can only be identified as anything from the Lilac-breasted Roller, Indian Roller, or Northern Carmine Bee-eater, to the flamingo.

During the Middle Ages, classical descriptions of the hoopoe were mistaken for descriptions of the lapwing, on account of the lapwing’s prominent crest, and the hoopoe’s rarity in England, resulting in lapwing being listed in certain bible translations instead of hoopoe; similarly the sea eagle has historically been confused with the osprey, and translations have often used the latter bird in place of the former. Because strouthos (ostrich) was also used in Greek for the sparrow, a few translations have placed the sparrow among the list. In Arabic, the Egyptian Vulture is often referred to as rachami, and therefore a number of translations render racham as gier eagle, the old name for the Egyptian Vulture.

Variations arise when translations follow other ancient versions of the Bible, rather than the Septuagint, where they differ. Rather than vulture (gyps), the Vulgate has milvus, meaning Red Kite, which historically has been called the glede, on account of its gliding flight; similarly, the Syriac Peshitta has owl rather than ibis. Other variations arise from attempting to base translations primarily on the masoretic text; these translations generally interpret some of the more ambiguous birds as being various different kinds of vulture and owl. All of these variations mean that most translations arrive at a list of 20 birds from among the following (links are to articles already written here):

Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus) by Bob-Nan

Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus) by Bob-Nan

The fruit bat, a frugivorous vegetarian species of bat, eating some fruit

Despite being listed among the birds by the bible, bats are not birds, and are in fact mammals. Most of the remaining animals on the list are either birds of prey or birds living on water, and the majority of the latter in the list also eat fish or other seafood. The Septuagint’s version of the list comprehensively lists most of the birds of Canaan that fall into these categories. The conclusion of modern scholars is that, generally, ritually unclean birds were those clearly observed to eat other animals.

Although it does regard all birds of prey as being forbidden, the Talmud is uncertain of there being a general rule, and instead gives detailed descriptions of the features that distinguish a bird as being ritually clean. The Talmud argues that clean birds would have craws, an easily separated double-skin, and would eat food by placing it on the ground (rather than holding it on the ground) and tearing it with their bills before eating it; however, the Talmud also argues that only the birds in the biblical list are actually forbidden – these distinguishing features were only for cases when there was any uncertainty in the bird’s identity


The earliest rationalistic explanations of the laws against eating certain birds focused on symbolic interpretations; the first indication of this view can be found in the 1st century BC Letter of Aristeas, which argues that this prohibition is a lesson to teach justice, and is also about not injuring others. Such allegorical explanations were abandoned by most Jewish and Christian theologians after a few centuries, and later writers instead sought to find medical explanations for the rules; Nachmanides, for example, claimed that the black and thickened blood of birds of prey would cause psychological damage, making people much more inclined to cruelty.

However, other cultures treated the meat of certain carnivorous birds as having medical benefits, the Romans viewing Owl meat as being able to ease the pain of insect bites, for example; conversely, modern scientific studies have discovered very toxic birds such as the Pitohui, which are neither birds of prey nor water birds, and therefore the biblical regulations allow them to be eaten. Laws against eating any carnivorous birds also existed in Vedic India and Harran, and the Egyptian priests also refused to eat carnivorous birds.

Modern practical considerations

Due to the difficulty of identification, religious authorities have restricted consumption to specific birds for which Jews have passed down a tradition or permissibility from generation to generation. Birds for whom there has been a tradition of their being kosher include: the sparrow, pigeon, turtle dove, quail, the European and Middle Eastern partridges, the pheasant, ducks, geese, chickens, guineafowl among others. As a general principle, scavenging birds such as vultures and birds of prey such as hawks and eagles (which eat carrion when they find it) are not kosher. Turkey does not have a tradition, but because so many Orthodox Jews have come to eat it and it possesses the simanim (signs) required to render it a kosher bird, an exception is made, but with all other birds a Mesorah (tradition) is required.

Birds such as songbirds, which are consumed as delicacies in many societies, may be kosher in theory, but are not eaten in kosher homes as there is no tradition of them being eaten as such. Pigeons and doves are known to be kosher based on their permissible status as sacrificial offerings in the Temple. Likewise, though swans are kosher in theory if kosher-slaughtered, there is no Jewish tradition of eating them. (from Wikipedia)


Second,  Study is not necessarily a weariness as Ecclesiastes 12:12 says,

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (KJV)

but we should study and even enjoy digging into God’s Word.

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

I am going to use my e-Sword program. If you have not used it, it is free and very useful. It has the KJV+ as part of it and it list the Greek and Hebrew words with their definitions. Will you join me in studying about the bird names in the languages of the Bible. Join me as we look at these words and compare them to the birds. Don’t let those weird-looking words scare you. You might find that learning to study about birds, might help you carry the method into studying more of God Word.

Look for future articles in this series.

P.S. A Lilac-breasted Roller is new to me. I can’t wait to find out the connection there.

Birds of the Bible


3 thoughts on “Birds of the Bible – Names of Birds Study Introduction

  1. Pingback: Birds of the Bible – Name Study – Swamphen or Waterhen | Lee's Birdwatching Adventures Plus

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