Skip to content

What About That Dove? – Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study I

August 14, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – What About That Dove?

Whatever one may think of the bible, it was unarguably written long ago by humans not significantly different than us, who wrote about what they knew and what they imagined, just as we do today. Any mention of a bird means – at a minimum – the writers had noticed them, however little they might have to say about them, or however accurate it might be. In this series, we begin with what the bible says about birds, to which we add what we’ve learned over the centuries since then, to see if we can uncover anything new and interesting. Each essay begins with a citation; we start in the beginning, with Genesis, the first book of the bible.

Cartoon by Charles Addams

Cartoon by Charles Addams

“After forty days Noah opened the trap-door that he had made in the ark, and released a raven to see whether the water had subsided, but the bird continued flying to and fro until the water on the earth had dried up. ”
Genesis 8:6-7
New English Bible

Little is said about this raven [עֹרֵב – oreb], not even whether it ever returned. One suspects it didn’t. Ravens usually have their own agenda. The raven in question was almost certainly the Common Raven (Corvus corax), the same species we find today across North America and Eurasia. We’ll revisit ravens in general, and this citation in particular, in a later episode and move on to the more useful – to Noah, and to humanity by extension – dove.

“Noah waited for seven days, and then he released a dove (יוֹנִים – yonah) from the ark to see whether the water on the earth had subsided further. But the dove could find no place to settle, and so she came back to him in the ark, because there was water over the whole surface of the earth. Noah stretched out his hand, caught her and took her into the ark. He waited another seven days and again released the dove from the ark.  She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak…He waited yet another seven days and released the dove, but she never came back.”   Genesis 8:8-12 New English Bible

Why would Noah choose to send out a dove, of all birds, and what kind of dove was it?  Ornithologists currently recognize 330 species of pigeons and doves grouped into 45 genera, so deciding which dove it was could be daunting. [All 330 species were presumably on the ark, along with the rest of the 10,000+ avian species.] Our story describes Noah’s ark as eventually coming to rest on Mt. Ararat, 16,945 feet high, 14,000-15,000 feet above the surrounding Armenian plain of eastern Turkey. We’ll assume the writer was an ordinary human who used his own experience to fill in details of his story; we’ll also assume that a bird noted was a bird familiar to the writer, and were then extant in the general region of the Middle East. In that region two dove or pigeon species predominate: the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), also known as park pigeon, homing pigeon, or carrier pigeon, and the European (or Common) Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur). Biblical Hebrew uses two words for these two species: tor (תֹּר), translated as dove or turtledove, and yonah (יוֹנִים), usually translated as pigeon, but also as dove. Occasionally these words occur together, as when Leviticus 5:7 suggests using “two turtle doves or two young pigeons” as sin-offerings. Our cited passage states yonah, so Noah’s “dove” could be of either species.

European Turtle-Dove (Wikipedia)

European Turtle-Dove (Wikipedia)

Of the seventeen species in the Streptopelia genus, the European Turtle-Dove is the most widespread and common, found from the Azores Islands in the west, across northern Africa, Europe, the Mid-East and western Asia to Iran and far-western China. They are widely domesticated by humans, used as food and as caged companions. The “turtle” part of their name – as may also the Hebrew “tor” – refers to their cooing call, which sounds to human ears like the word “turtle.” This widespread impression is recognized in their name in many languages: French – Tourterelle des bois, Dutch – Tortelduif, German – Turteltaube, Swedish – Turturduva, and in the scientific species name, turtur. However, many people refer to this much-admired bird as simply “Turtle“, as did the British when the King James version of the bible was published in 1611. In recent years, and in regions which do not host turtle-doves, bible readers are often mystified by the following passage:

“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…”     Song of Solomon 2:11-12 King James Version

Since when does one ever hear a turtle say anything? One doesn’t, and recent translations and updated versions have re-translated the Hebrew tor in this passage from “turtle” to “turtle-dove.”

Why send out a Dove?  All pigeons and doves build nests of twigs. Not very well, I should add. They may be so loosely constructed that one can see the eggs through the bottom of the nest. After a mated pair locate a suitable nest site, frequently a fork in a tree limb, they (sometimes only one) fly off to find twigs to bring back; these may be dead and broken, but living twigs may be preferred for their flexibility. One of the pair may stay to guard the site and suitably arrange returned twigs until the nest is complete. All pigeons and doves are strong and swift flyers, able to quickly cover a lot of area without needing to land. Many species can also find their way home through vast featureless areas.

Rock Pigeon at Malibu Lagoon (Jim Kenney 2-19-10)

Rock Pigeon at Malibu Lagoon
(Jim Kenney 2-19-10)

The Rock Pigeon, whom the Israelites called yonah, has been domesticated for millennia for food, feathers, fun, and not least for its ability to reliably carry messages to its home roost from any distance or direction, despite adverse conditions of weather and light. Historians report that the use of “carrier pigeons” probably began in ancient Persia, and dates to at least 1000 BCE. Phoenician merchants at sea used the pigeon post to send messages home; the Greeks used them to announce results of the Olympic games. Such an instinctive “homing” pigeon, one who seeks and gathers twigs with which to build its nest, would be the perfect animal to recruit for the task of finding and returning living vegetable matter, to indicate the end of a flood and the reemergence of land and vegetation. It could fly for hours, cover a huge area, and reliably return, bringing a live twig if it could find one, or a dead twig if that’s all it could find. Genesis says (in translation) that Noah sent out a “dove,” but in all likelihood, it was not the European Turtle-Dove but the Rock Pigeon, whose biblical Hebrew name yonah, used in this passage, is translated as either pigeon or dove.

Rock Pigeons on cliff in Israel (Igor Svobodin)

Rock Pigeons on cliff in Israel (Igor Svobodin)

The Rock Pigeon nests on barren cliffs, often in arid, confusingly-configured regions, and often had to travel wide and far to find food, water, and nesting material. This constellation of characteristics suggests that they may be the reason the species evolved such a remarkable homing ability.

The selection of the Rock Pigeon for this role in this story, demonstrates that the writer was aware of four things: First, the mere fact of this species’ existence; Second, the bird’s ability to fly fast and far; Third, its natural desire to seek and

Peace dove with Olive Branch (Google)

Peace dove with Olive Branch (Google)

bring back twigs for the purpose of nest-building; Fourth, its remarkable ability to recall the location of its home roost in the vastness of an unfamiliar and potentially featureless region. The earliest use of the Rock Pigeon as “carrier” pigeon is probably unrecorded, but here we see a suggestion that it was known, at the time of this story, in the Middle East. Because of this biblical passage, doves are now symbols of peace (or the forgiveness of an angry deity) and the olive branch is a symbolic peace-offering.

Linguistic confusion between pigeon and dove remains common today. There is no set rule as to which is which. Typically, larger birds are pigeons, smaller birds are doves. Each of the 45 genera in Columbiformes – with one exception – consists (in English) entirely of pigeons or entirely of doves, never a mixture. The sole exception is the genus Columba (which includes our Rock Pigeon) comprising 36 species, of which three are called “dove,” the rest are “pigeons.” The continuing drive for English avian nomenclatural consistency, including the goal of calling all species in the Columba genus by the name of “pigeon” brought, in 2003, the change from Rock Dove to Rock Pigeon. By it’s size it should be called a pigeon. All it’s closest relatives are called pigeons. The bible (except Noah) calls it a pigeon, park statues everywhere call it a pigeon, messenger services call it a pigeon. But speakers of English long branded it a dove, and, in biblical translation ever since, it has remained a dove.

Carrier Pigeon hauling a canary (Weird Universe)

Carrier Pigeon carries a canary (WeirdUniverse)

The native range of Rock Pigeon is obscured by domestication. For millennia they have accompanied humans, and the descendants of escaped and released birds number into the many millions, if not billions, world-wide. They do not migrate. Their original range probably extended from the mountains of Morocco in the west to the eastern Indian Himalayas. They nest on ledges and in holes of rocky cliffs, hence the name Rock Pigeon. They have survived and spread exceedingly well throughout the modern world because humans have considerately constructed ledge-filled artificial cliffs for them, which we call buildings and bridges, and freely fed them sumptuous feasts, which we call trash.

Rock Pigeons on man-made cliffs (Chuck Bragg 9-25-11)

Rock Pigeons relaxing on man-made cliffs (Chuck Bragg 9-25-11)

Incidentally, Genesis 8:12 misrepresents this faithful and vigorous bird when saying it did not return to the ark. Very little will keep a Rock Pigeon from returning to its home roost. They do not often become lost. Only accidents, predation, or (unlikely) a new mate would keep it away from its home, its nest, and its mate. As all animals except our pigeon (or dove) were supposedly still parked on the ark at this time, there would be no predators or potential mates to keep it away. The disappearance of our pigeon is almost certainly a metaphor, a case of the biblical writer taking literary license to send a signal to the alert reader. After its scouring, the damp, new earth has received our pigeon – and all her living creatures by extension, including wayward humans – back into her fruitful arms.

Bible Factoid #1: Noah,the Flood, and the Epic of Gilgamesh
The biblical story of Noah and the flood is greatly predated by the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. First discovered in Nineveh in 1853 and translated in 1870, the epic – considered by many scholars to be the first written work of literature in the world – dates to about 2100 BCE and relates the adventures of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk in southeastern Mesopotamia. It was a popular story of that age

Mesopotamia & location of Uruk, city of Gilgamesh (

Mesopotamia & location of Uruk, city of Gilgamesh (

and region, and parts of it have been found in excavations of other ancient cities. The description of the flood occurs near the epic’s end when Gilgamesh travels far to the northwest to find Utnapishtim, the then-immortal survivor of an ancient

Deluge Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in Akkadian script (Wikipedia)

Deluge Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic in Akkadian script (Wikipedia)

flood. In Utnapishtim’s narration, the rains lasted six days and nights; the boat then grounded on Mt. Nisir, a hatch was opened and the mountain could be seen; the boat rested for 6 days and nights; Utnapishtim then released a dove, which returned; a sparrow was released which also returned; a raven was released which found food, flew around and did not return. Utnapishtim then left the boat and made a sacrifice on the mountaintop. It is illuminating to compare these details to those found in Genesis 6-9.

This story is now near-universally accepted by biblical scholars as the origin of the flood story found in Genesis, but before its complete translation in 1870, no one knew that the story of Noah’s flood was not original with Genesis, but was based on a far earlier story.

Part II – Sandgrouse or Quail? & YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part IV – Birds that Sow, Reap and Store & Whence Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)
Part V – The Friendly Raven & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation
[Chuck Almdale]
[This is the first in a series]

Additional Sources:
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translation and introduction by N.K. Sandars, 1964, Penguin Books, Baltimore. Pgs 7-16, 105-110.
2. New English Bible with the Apocrypha, The, Oxford Study Edition. Sandmel, Samuel, Suggs, M. Jack, Tkacik, Arnold J.; eds. (1972) Oxford University Press, New York

  1. August 27, 2016 8:51 am

    Hi, Chuck. I love your piece on the Rock Pigeon. Fascinating!


  2. ednalvarez permalink
    August 14, 2016 10:46 am

    Hi Chuck, I am AMAZED by this piece. I am presuming that you are the author and researcher of all of the linguistic, biblical, scientific etc. details. What started you on this project and for how long did the journey take you? I shall never look at a Rock Pigeon again as ‘just a Rock Pigeon.’ Thanks for this piece, Chuck, and all you do for the community!


    • Chukar permalink*
      August 14, 2016 12:55 pm

      Thanks for the compliment, Edna. Yes, I wrote all of it. Everything I write has my name at the very end. This, and most of the forthcoming pieces in a similar vein, are updates of articles written about 15 years ago for the newsletter of a church I then regularly attended, and in which I was very active. I delved deeply into the bible, yet never lost my critical eye. As for how long it took to write, I’ll cite a favorite quote: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” — Oscar Wilde



  1. Don’t Eat That Bird! — Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study VIII | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  2. The Wise Hoopoe: Sunday Morning Quran Bird Study VII | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  3. The Humble Hoopoe: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study VI | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  4. The Friendly Ravens: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study V | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  5. Birds that Sow, Reap and Store: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study IV | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  6. Junglefowl in Judea: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study III | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog
  7. Sandgrouse or Quail?: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study II | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: