The ancient Egyptians and birds — history of a fascination

For the ancient Egyptians, among the many thousands of species available for scrutiny, none were so present or as closely watched as birds.

An engraving of Ancient Egyptians hunting birds.
An engraving of Ancient Egyptians hunting birds. Credit: duncan1890/Getty Images

The ancient Egyptians may be considered the first naturalists. They recorded their observations of flora, fauna and topographies in texts and depictions as early as the third millennium BC. Although predominately desert, Egypt was not as arid 5,000 years ago as it is today and nature was bountiful. The Nile roiled with fish. Along with herds of wild cattle, hartebeest and gazelle, in addition to the intensive cultivation of greens, pulse and grains, there was plenty to put on the table. Among the many thousands of species available for scrutiny or the pleasures of the palate, none were so present or as closely watched as birds. Aside from numerous native species, Egypt falls on a major migration route for Eurasian flocks that stopped there after the long haul over the parched Levant or the Mediterranean Sea. They came in their many millions, blotting out the sun, filling the air with the thunder of their wings. Old Kingdom tomb decorations show one deceased Egyptian bird-hunting from a papyrus raft by throwing a stick at flocks so dense he was bound to bag some.

Birds are a pervasive motif in ancient art and design, signalling appreciation for their beauty, from-pre-dynastic ceramic pots, to Middle Kingdom jewellery, New Kingdom faience tiles and furniture legs fashioned in the curving form of ducks’ heads and necks. Imagery from tombs and temples details bird behaviours implying intelligence, or at the least, survival skills, such as grey herons swallowing fish head first, so as not to ruffle the scales (which might otherwise choke them), kingfishers precision-diving into the river to nab a meal, and geese walking with pursed toes, to gain purchase. Dramatic marsh scenes show mongeese and genets aggressing nestlings, while parents mob the intruders using their body as missiles, spearing the predators with their beaks. Elsewhere, black kites fight over carrion, using an open claw display – lifting the leg to show the soles of their feet, a sportsmanlike gesture aimed at judging opponents’ size, with only the well-matched pairing off in battle.With its connotations of superhuman power, flight fascinated the ancients – their paintings display varied wing positions, and bodies angled up or down to soar, coast or dive.

Avian behaviour inspired the ancients’ attribution of qualities to their deities. Horus, the god of kings and just rule, was depicted as a falcon, known for its speed and agility and as a brave, unerring hunter. Winged goddesses embody the concepts of both motherly nurturing and fierce protection, as illustrated in scenes where birds’ wings are swept forward above nests to make them seem larger and more formidable to predators. While the seasonal arrival of migrations was predictable, the actions of flocks were not. Overall, birds were seen as representing the twin concepts of order and chaos that informed ancient ideology, with the latter recognised as both integral to the cosmic balance, and a force to be held at bay to uphold an everlasting status quo.

Given the close attention they paid to their environment, and their attachment to animal-headed gods, it’s tempting to assume the ancients lived in greater harmony with nature than we do. Many religious texts place humans on the same level as the gods’ other creations, including animals, all part of an interactive whole. But one papyrus implies a more familiar attitude for which there is ample proof: ‘well-tended is mankind – god’s cattle. He made sky and earth for their sake.’ However great their respect for nature, like us, the Egyptians wished to direct and benefit from it.

The pharaonic era saw the gradual control of the Nile using canals and dykes, and catch basins for field irrigation; people dug wells to water orchards, and created artificial lakes for temple rituals. Old Kingdom pharaohs built waterways to deliver materials to pyramid building sites, and a 75 metre-long shipping canal in Aswan. New Kingdom pharaoh Amenhotep III launched a land reclamation project near the Fayoum oasis in the north, and on Luxor’s west bank he had over five million cubic metres of dirt removed to create a 2.4 kilometre-long ceremonial harbour where he rode his royal barge. By late antiquity, the Nile no longer flooded freely; though not controlled it was certainly constrained. Having identified varieties of stone and minerals, including gold, gemstones, and meteoritic ironthe Egyptians mined extensively. There were at least 200 stone quarries, some immense, each with adjacent roads and ramps connected to transport networks; a granite and diorite quarry at Aswan covered 100 square kilometres. Natural resources were considered affirmations of Egypt’s status as a nation blessed by the gods.

Recognising that famine is the greatest threat to power, food production absorbed the ancients. Bird-hunters worked in teams, using nets strung in the high papyrus thickets and released to trap the birds beneath. Having observed that waterfowl tended to alight in greater numbers when a grey heron was nearby (indicating a place unfrequented by humans) they tied one by the foot at their hunting grounds, as bait. Ducks and geese were bred in captivity, sometimes force-fed to fatten them. Compared to modern poultry farms, ancient ones were luxurious – spacious outdoor areas equipped with a water source. Birds were literally money in the bank, commoditised in a bartering system where, for example, twenty pigeons could buy a goat. We don’t know if the ancients ate eggs, but they were used in medicines, as was goose and ostrich fat; feathers stuffed pillows and were made into fans. In late antiquity bird guano wassprinkled to fertilize fields.

Fowl featured on the menus supplied as ritual offerings to the dead, foods that were later distributed to living members of temple and palace institutions, but birds had a more specific religious function. Taken from the wild or bred in captivity, birds were mummified, packed in pottery jars and inscribed with dedications as votive offerings to the bird-headed gods. At hundreds of cult sites nationwide, as many as 10,000 bird mummies were produced annually and probably sold to pilgrims wanting to leave one at a temple to signal piety and win divine favour. Millions of hawk and ibis (sacred to Thoth) mummies were found at Saqqara alone. Raising, processing and packaging birds constituted an entire palace-subsidised industry.

In the West, the first stages of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century are the most vivid example of humans impacting their environment without a care for the consequences – but the ancient Egyptians likewise strovefor profit and dominion. The Egyptians can be forgiven for thinking that nature’s gifts were limitless; it certainly seemed that way, and their entire civilisation was built on belief in eternal renewal. Today, we know better. Yet rhetorical appreciation for Earth’s life-support system is clearly no guarantee of collective action to preserve its health, or ours. This ambivalence towards the environment that characterises modern societies is nothing new. The notion that everything on and beneath the earth is ours for the taking is in fact so widely and deeply engrained, you might call it second nature.


Maria Golia