The Chinese Character for "Bird"

Meaning: Bird
Sound: [niǎo]  

The Chinese call birds [niǎo] . In very early times, the word was drawn as a picture of a bird, shaped like the ones shown below: 

Chinese Character for mountain, ancient form

Chinese Character for mountain, ancient form

The pictogram was later standardized as 鳥, which was then simplified to be 鸟. You can still see the connection between the way it looks today and what it used to be. 

Birds make a nice part of the natural world, hardly posing threats to anyone (except the worms perhaps). The Chinese phrase 鸟语花香 [niǎo yǔ huā xiāng], "singing birds and fragrant flowers," suggests an environment of serenity and joy.

Human beings do pose threats to birds, often shooting them down for food. The set phrase 惊弓之鸟 [jīng gōng zhī niǎo], "a bird that starts at the sight of a bow," is often used to refer to someone who get startled easily due to some bad experience in the past.

Back in the Spring-Autumn Era (770-476 BCE), in a feudal state in East China, there were two able ministers who successfully assisted their king in defeating an external enemy. One of the ministers, having seen the victory, decided to retire and withdraw from officialdom, and he invited the other minister to do the same. The second minister, however, would not follow the advice and decided to stay on. The first minister left by himself and went on to live a peaceful and prosperous life on the shores of a great lake. The second minister soon fell out of the king's grace and was eventually executed. The wise minister, when he counselled the the not-so-wise minister, had used the phrase 鸟尽弓藏 [niǎo jìn gōng cáng] - "When all the birds are gone, it's time to put away the bow." Something that has functioned well often contributes to its own extinction; the same with men.  

鸟 can also be used as a curse word, in a similar way that English speakers refer to the male genital by invoking the nickname of the rooster. When a Chinese says 鸟人 [niǎo rén], “bird man," he is venting his anger at that inglorious person.

On the positive side, a handy phrase to use while doing something like a pep talk is 笨鸟先飞 [bèn niǎo xiān fēi], "The slow bird flies early." This means the same as the English saying "The early bird gets the worm."

As symbols of peace and joy, birds appeared frequently in traditional Chinese painting,  which was highly influenced by the Daoist appreciation of nature. Below is a painting on silk done in the South Song Dynasty (1127-1279).