Guest Post: Elizabeth Hardy Takes ‘A Bird’s Eye View: Birds in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games’

“O The Cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird,

And she warbles as she flies,

She never says cuckoo,

Til the fourth day of July”

“The Cuckoo” Traditional Appalachian song

A Bird’s Eye View: Birds in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games

The music of Appalachia is woven though with references to birds and their songs, echoing through the tunes as the notes warble out through the forests and meadows of the ancient mountain chain. As a product of what was once called Appalachia and still retains many of its physical and cultural characteristics, Katniss Everdeen lives in a world permeated by the sight and sound of avian creatures, so it is natural that her story should be one filled with birds serving a variety of functions both practical and symbolic.

Even without the trilogy’s covers depicting a mockingjay evolving from the abstract golden pin to the living bird on the series finale that bears its name, the thematic use of birds in the series would be relevant and revealing. The most visible bird, of course, both in the flesh and as metaphor, is the mockingjay. Everything about the unintended hybrid of capital artifice and  nature’s art reflects its paradoxical nature. The mockingbird, prolific and common, with its whimsical gift for imitation, is the ideal counterpoint to the (seemingly) sterile and artificial jabberjay created in a lab for the sole purpose of spying on the Capitol’s enemies.

The mockingjay, then, brings together the opposing elements of freedom and control, nature and science, and makes the ideal symbol for the rebellion against the Capitol’s stifling control over its far-flung empire of districts. In addition, both the mockingbird and the jabberjay are, like nearly everything else in the Hunger Games Trilogy, more than they seem.  The seemingly mild-mannered mockingbird, whose strongest defense mechanism would seem to be antagonizing dogs by imitating human whistles, has actually demonstrated the capability to recognize and attack humans who behave in a threatening manner.

In a recent Discover magazine list of 100 scientific discoveries that are changing the world, a biologist at the University of Florida reported that mockingbirds could locate in a crowd individuals who had “threatened” their nests. They would then attack only these individuals.  Interestingly, this is exactly the defense technique of the vicious, venomous trackerjacker wasps that Katniss uses as a weapon by dropping a nest on the Career Tributes in the Seventy-fourth Games. So even the mild-mannered mockingbird possesses defensive characteristics that link it to one of the most fearsome creatures in Panem. The mockingjay may or may not have this characteristic, but it does certainly have the quality of being more than it seems, just like the simmering rebellion of the subject districts.  Birds in general, as proverbial free spirits with independent voices, make ideal symbols for freedom and independence, and the mockingjay is no exception.

Mockingjays also have the unique ability to sense when the Capitol hovercraft are about to arrive, letting out a warning whistle after an abrupt silence.  Katniss comes to rely on this advance warning, but the peculiar hybrids are not the only birds that provide warnings. In Catching Fire, Katniss nearly touches the recently re-electrified fence before being alerted by “a sudden screech of an owl” (150).  The owl’s cry, in Appalachia, is often associated with bad fortune, and certainly, Katniss’s fortunes take a downward slope from the moment of the owl’s cry. Although she manages to re-enter the District’s enclosed space and pretend she never left,  Katniss recovers from her drop over the fence only to be sent into the arena once more for the Quarter Quell. Later, in the clockface arena, the intuitive  Wiress (“Nuts”) is  described as being “like a canary in one of your coal mines” ( 338).  Her sudden silence in the middle of  singing “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” warns the others of danger with her death. The canary is killed, but her allies escape.

Birds as warnings or omens create one of the books’ many connections with the classical world. Interpreting the auspices, or flights of birds believed to be messages from the gods, was an important method of determining divine will among the ancients.   In Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus sends for the seer Teiresias to help the Thebans with their plight, he begs, “Can you use/ Birdflight or any art of divination/ to purify yourself, and Thebes, and me[?]” ( 299-300). Ancient prophets would examine the skies to see what birds appeared and in what configuration to determine the message being sent by the gods.

Collins’s Panem, with its obvious Greco-Roman undertones, is thus not a surprising place to find this classical practice echoed. The mockingjay that flits through the grainy images of District 13 serves as just such an omen, a message to the district rebels that the Capitol does not hold absolute sway, that District 13 may be more than smoking rubble. The mockingjay symbol embraced by the rebellion, from the cracker in Bonnie’s palm to Katniss’s transformed wedding dress, all serve as symbols, auspices, in the plan to overthrow the Capitol.

In another, rather peculiar, connection to the classical world, the disgraced and executed Head Gamemaker from the Seventy-fourth Games, whose sentimental tendencies spare Katniss and Peeta and create their unique double victory, is named Seneca Crane. The Crane dance was performed in the classical world (and is actually a dance performed by a variety of cultures), notably by the hero Theseus on the island of Delos during his homeward journey after the defeat of the Minotaur.

In fact, in her fictional retelling of Theseus’ adventures, The King Must Die, Mary Renault has her Theseus call his bull-dancing team The Cranes. While Renault replaces the monstrous Minotaur with the historically accurate bull dancing, the story of the Athenian tributes annually sent to die to placate their Minoan overloads is one any reader familiar with mythology will easily see alluded to in The Hunger Games. Ironically, the ancient author whose account of Theseus’ life includes his Delian Crane dance was none other than Plutarch, whose name Collins gives to Seneca Crane’s replacement, the rebellious Plutarch Heavensbee, who swoops in, birdlike, to retrieve Katniss from the destroyed arena.

Birds are such a part of Katniss’s life, that it should not be surprising that they serve so many functions and are a common frame of reference for her. Mr. Everdeen, Katniss’s late father, is described as singing so beautifully that even the bird stopped to listen, a trait Peeta also ascribes to Katniss when she sings on the first day of school. The silence of the birds could be more than just their respect for great singing, however. As Katniss notes, the mockingjays stop singing at the arrival of Capitol hovercraft, so perhaps their silence at the singing of Katniss and her father indicates more than just respect for music. Perhaps, like the Capitol, Katniss and her father are truly powerful, and even the birds recognize that.

Despite Katniss’s dismissal of music as ranking somewhere in importance between hair ribbons and rainbows ( HG 211), she treasures the mockingjay’s repetition of Rue’s call, a call taken up by the dissidents in District 11 during the Victory Tour, and her song of farewell to the dying Rue continues to resonate in her mind as she imagines a place like the one described in the song. Perhaps her seeming indifference to music, and the birds that produce it, stems from the loss of her father, the man whose voice silenced birds and likely could call them down from the trees, yet Katniss continues to reference birds even in her own thoughts. She thinks of her prep team, with their peculiar body art and hairdos, as strange exotic birds, rather than as people, easing her embarrassment as they work on her naked body to bring her to Capitol standards of beauty.

In her mind, Rue is always a bird, even without the wings put on by her stylist for the Games interviews. Rue mentions that a boy in her district was killed for keeping a pair of night vision goggles; his name was Martin, a bird familiar to all gardeners.  Singing in the treetops, and jumping so far she appears to be flying, Rue is brought down by a net, just as an actual bird might be, and when Katniss sees her former ally’s surviving family members, they resemble “a flock of small, dark birds”( CF 58). Clearly, Katniss is a person who frequently has birds on the brain.

Birds also serve very practical roles in the series. Katniss and Rue survive primarily upon groosling, a fatty bird, in the arena, and wild turkeys are a frequent addition to the diets of both Gale’s and Katniss’s families thanks to diligent hunting in the woods. When she really shows off her archery skills in practice for the Quarter Quell, Katniss shoots down model birds in rapid succession. Birds can also, however, present real danger for Collins’s protagonists. Shooting one of those turkeys (and attempting to sell it to the Head Peackeeper) leads to Gale’s whipping, with the turkey hung over his head to announce his “crime.”  In the second Quarter Quell Games, Maysilee Donner, Madge’s aunt and friend to Katniss’s mother, is killed by lurid pink birds who puncture her throat with their long, thin beaks. Interestingly, this same girl’s pet, a canary, was given to Katniss’s mother after the Games. The girl killed by birds leaves behind a bird for her friend whose daughter will go on to become the bird symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Strangely enough, a bird whose role is critical in the series is one that is never mentioned, and is a bird that Katniss would never have seen; it is, after all, mythological, and her bland, Capitol-approved textbooks would have hardly contained a picture of the magnificent phoenix. Symbol of resurrection and renewal, the phoenix is the implied bird throughout the series. The three phases of its life: death, incineration, and rebirth, are clearly mirrored in the stages of the trilogy: death in the games, the “spark” of rebellion, and, we presume, rebirth and renewal in the final installment.  Although Katniss immediately recognizes her transformed wedding dress as a mockingjay costume, the transformation process is identical to that of the phoenix.

She begins the three-step phoenix life cycle in the heavy, confining, cold silk that now is far more like a shroud than a wedding dress due to the Capitol’s plans for her to die in her second trip to the arena. Clearly, this is the dying phoenix phase. Then, her garments literally catch fire. Katniss has been the “girl on fire” since her first appearance in the Capitol, thanks to her crafty stylist, Cinna, whose name even sounds like “incinerate.” Now, though, she completes the process by becoming a brand new, beautiful bird: the heavy, tight silk is replaced by tiny, light feathers, freeing and transforming Katniss before the very eyes of baffled Capitol viewers. Then, instead of dying the arena as the Capitol clearly intends for her to do, Katniss  succeeds in both destroying the arena and escaping the clutches of the Games.

It remains to be seen what additional avian elements Collins presents in her eagerly awaited final installment of the series, the aptly named Mockingjay. With such a title, we as readers can surely expect more birds serving functional, symbolic, and even allegorical roles as Katniss the  Mockingjay discovers whether District 13 is indeed a phoenix, risen from its ashes to become a powerful force that will destroy the Capitol.

Abrams, Michael. “87: Mockingbirds Know who You Are.” Discover Jan/Feb 2010:76. MAS Ultra. EBSCOHost. 16 Mar. 2010.

Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2009.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York, Scholastic, 2008.

Plutarch. “Life of Theseus.” Lives Vol. I. Translated by Perrin, Bernadotte. Loeb Classical Library Volume 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1914, 21 Mar. 2010.

Sophocles. Oedpius Rex. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson, eds. Boston: Thompson Wadsworth, 2006.1218-1261.


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Elizabeth, this is a wow! Thank you for so beautifully outlining the bird symbolism; some of the birds you mentioned “went right over my head.”

    You write:
    Then, instead of dying the arena as the Capitol clearly intends for her to do, Katniss  succeeds in both destroying the arena and escaping the clutches of the Games. In keeping with the bird imagery, one could say that Katniss escapes by flying out (even if it’s not under her own power).

  2. The hovercraft is very birdlike, with its “claws” coming down to collect Katniss and presumably BeeTee and Finnick as well.

  3. This is very interesting, thank you for sharing.

  4. Elizabeth says

    Thanks, Lynn! Arabella, you crack me up (over my head, hahaha!) Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. See more ‘Birds in Hunger Games’ thoughts by Professor Hardy — on Ducks and Mockingjays — by clicking here.

  6. “Mockingjays also have the unique ability to sense when the Capitol hovercraft are about to arrive, letting out a warning whistle after an abrupt silence.”

    Isn’t this exactly what Peeta himself does when he is warning of the raid on District 13 in Mockingjay? Peeta, in this case, is identified with the Mockingjay as well, having warned the rebels of the coming of Capitol ships to bomb them. After all, every bird needs a mate.

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