The Symbolism Of The Mourning Dove

The mourning dove is one of the most commonly seen birds in North America. Although so numerous it is, like its cousin, the white dove, a bird associated with much symbolism.

In various legends, stories and belief systems, when a Mourning Dove visits you it is said to be a symbol of:

  • Peace
  • Hope
  • Love and protection
  • Loved ones
  • Long life
  • Good fortune
  • Repentance
  • Romantic love
  • Sadness

The mourning dove seems to have caught the attention and imagination of people more than other species. Perhaps only second place to the white dove of peace, the mourning dove has more cultural references than any other bird.

mourning dove symbolism

There is the romanticism of its cry which gives rise to its name and the symbolism associated with a mourning dove visiting you and yet it is also the major prey of dove hunting with some 20 million killed every year.   

Its spiritual association goes a long way beyond its cry and visits.

Here are the most popular symbolizations of the mourning dove:

1. Symbol of Peace

Although the notion of peace is more classically assigned to the white dove, it applies equally to the mourning dove. This message is commonly conveyed by the image of a dove with an olive branch in its beak or talons.

the dove as a symbol of peace

This image is one of the most common and recognizable symbolic pictures in the world.

By the middle of the 20th century, the dove had become so symbolic of peace that ”The Dove of Peace”, a picture by Picasso was chosen to be the logo for the First International Peace Conference in Paris in 1949.

2. Symbol of Hope

The dove is a symbol of hope, particularly to those who hold Christian faith and beliefs.

The Bible has two mentions that specifically present the dove in connection to help and hope.

mourning dove as a symbol of hope

The first of these, and arguably the most famous, is the story of Noah and the great flood.

After 40 days and 40 nights on the ark with no sign of land, Noah sent out a dove and it finally returned with an olive branch in its beak, signaling that land was nearby and therefore that hope had been restored.

Both the dove and olive branch are separately attributed as being a symbol of peace so together, they are doubly powerful.

The second reference is in the story of the baptism of Jesus, where it is stated that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus ‘like a dove’. The dove represents the spirit of God.

These references were adopted by early Christians and the dove and olive branch symbol of peace was used to portray the act of baptism as well as being used as imagery on their sepulchers (tombs).

3. Symbol of Love And Protection

Doves are known to mate with a single partner for life, and this monogamy has led to them being seen as a sign of lasting love and protection in numerous Native American cultures.

a pair of mourning doves

Some Mexican Indian tribes and the Aztecs associated the dove with Xochiquetzal, their goddess of fertility, which obviously links to both romantic love and the protection of a growing child. The dove image was often used on decorations for wedding ceremonies and celebrations.

The Blackfeet tribe also sees the mourning dove as a symbol of protection and would wear dove feathers when going into battle as a talisman for a safe return.

4. Symbol of Loved Ones

Many people believe that the sighting or presence of a mourning dove can symbolize a visit or message from a deceased loved one, or more simply, that the sight of the dove serves as a timely reminder of somebody whose presence you miss in your life.

mourning dove looking in through a window

The elegant entrance and exit that a dove makes symbolize the way in which loved ones come into our lives and sometimes leave before we want them to. It is both beautiful and melancholy.

5. Symbol of Long Life

In China, the mourning dove is seen as a symbol of long life and fidelity.

mourning dove flying past old man

You will see it across lots of Chinese art, decor, feng shui and other aspects of home design.

Wherever you can see a dove in Chinese design, it is a sign that the artist is communicating feelings and sentiments of longevity and prosperous life.

6. Symbol of Good Fortune

In many different legends told throughout the African continent, the dove is a symbol of good fortune.

In one tale, a woman and her child are captured and held by an ogre. Although starving, the woman feeds a dove with seeds every day. After the woman requests the dove to find her husband, it locates him. The husband saves his wife and child by killing the ogre.

mourning dove eating seeds

This gives rise to two meanings for the dove. One is that is represents good fortune because the woman and child’s fate was changed. Secondly, it is a symbol of reciprocity – i.e. one good turn deserves another.

7. Symbol of Repentance

In Ancient Israel, Hebrews used to practice a kind of ritual sacrifice that was seen as a sign of outward repentance for any sin or wrongdoing.

Larger animals like cows and sheep were sacrificed by wealthy families, while poorer families chose to perform the ritual with one or two doves.

dove outside jerusalem temple

This practice continued for generations, right up until 70 AD when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Archaeological finds have shown that dovecotes existed in the city simply to provide a supply of doves for sacrificial purposes.

It is easy to see from this old tradition why the mourning dove in more modern Jewish culture has become a symbol for general repentance and atonement.

8. Symbol of Romantic Love

In Greek mythology, the goddess of love, Aphrodite surrounded by a flock of doves is a common image in temple decorations and on pottery.

mourning dove resting in the arm of a statue of Aphrodite

Similar images can also be found of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and this connection with doves and romance stayed strong all the way into the Middle Ages when doves started to become a popular symbol for expressions of love.

They have now become a standard piece of imagery for modern Western celebrations like Valentine’s Day.

The link between doves and love or romance is so intrinsically strong that it is where we get the colloquial adjective ‘lovey-dovey’ from to describe people who are besotted with each other!

9. Symbol of Sadness

As you can probably surmise from its given name, the mourning dove is known for the mournful, melancholy cooing sound that it makes. Because of this distinctive cry, the dove represents sadness, particularly in Christian scripture.

sad mourning dove

In the book of Isaiah, somebody is described as mourning like a dove, and in the book of Ezekiel, a similar passage is written that hints at the same metaphor. With direct quotes like this, it is easy to see why the sound and sight of the dove became so heavily associated with mourning and sorrow.

The dove’s association with sadness makes it a common symbol on sympathy cards.

Ultimately, though, what we find most interesting is the fact that even though mourning is literally in the name, the mourning dove is much more associated as a symbol of various positive emotions like hope and love, rather than sorrow. The power of the bird and its imagery lies in the way that it covers the entire spectrum of human experience and emotion!

Denise Bereford

Denise Bereford is a full-time writer and researcher with a long-standing passion for pigeons.

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