Birds are some of the most conspicuous and ambiguous symbols in the novel: crows, ravens, sparrows, turkeys, etc. At various points, the characters see birds flying past and project all sorts of symbolic meanings onto the sight. Inman envies birds for being able to fly home—unlike Inman himself, who’s forced to walk all the way back to Black Cove, his childhood home. Ruby Thewes and Ada Monroe try to find prophecies of the future by interpreting the movements of crows, symbolizing their uncertainty about their own futures (and echoing the ancient practice of augury—using birds to predict the future). In all, birds are symbols of both escape and the human desire for some kind of higher meaning. In times of great danger and uncertainty, the characters envy birds for their freedom, and also look to them to try and find a purpose in the seemingly random twists of fate. It’s telling that toward the end of the novel, when Ada begins to accept the terms of her new life, that she refuses to “interpret” the sight of a murder of crows at all—because she’s finally satisfied with her own life, she has no need for escape, and therefore no need to dwell on the birds.
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The timeline below shows where the symbol Birds appears in Cold Mountain. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: the shadow of a crow
Chapter 6: ashes of roses
Chapter 8: source and root
...raining. They’re on a mission to buy supplies for plowing: scythes, horseshoes, etc. Ruby notices crows flying through the sky, and suggests that they’re an omen of something bad. Ada is... (full context)
Chapter 9: to live like a gamecock
Chapter 10: in place of the truth
Chapter 11: the doing of it
Chapter 14: a satisfied mind
Chapter 18: footsteps in the snow
Chapter 19: the far side of trouble