Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a particular interest in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.
100 Avian Idioms and Phrases
There is a diverse multitude of terms and phrases sourced from the observance of our feathered friends. Humans have interacted with these beautiful creatures for thousands of years. It would be strange indeed, had so many of their behaviors and quirks not entered into our everyday language.
It is a matter of record that people have observed the behavior of birds for centuries. This infatuation with bird-life is just as real today, as can be evidenced by the world's large contingent of bird watchers or, as those who take their interest more seriously are known, "twitchers" and they continue to further their studies to new heights.
When we start to delve into this world of words, that we discover the true extent of the impact birds have had and continue to have on our everyday vocabulary.
1. A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush
Meaning: It is better to take a smaller win or advantage now, rather than risk everything that the next move or the future may hold.
Example sentence: "I decided to take the opening offer on the house sale. I know I may have been able to stick out for a slightly larger offer, but I need the sale, and I figured a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush."
2. Strictly for the Birds
Meaning: Activity or information that is entirely worthless.
Country of origin: United States of America.
Example sentence: "Simon's plan to swim the channel for charity is strictly for the birds; he only learned to swim two months ago."
3. A Bird's Eye View
This idiom refers to a general view of something, usually from above.
Example sentence: "The view from the penthouse is remarkable; it offers a real birds-eye view of the city."
A Birds Eye View Idiom Explained
4. Talk Turkey
- To talk about business.
- To speak bluntly.
- To take something seriously.
Origin: An idiom with its roots in Colonial America. The trade by Pilgrims and native Indians initially involved the Indians giving turkeys. It was not long before this became a regular part of any trading arrangement between them, leading to the term we use today.
Example sentence: "I know you don't want to discuss having to pay more rent. But you can't avoid the issue forever. I'm afraid it's time to talk turkey."
5. Cold Turkey
Meaning: Originally, a turn of phrase used to say; the plain truth.
Today, this expression is more commonly used to describe withdrawing from drug-taking and is now said to represent kicking any bad habit.
Example sentence: "I have gone cold turkey and stopped drinking beer completely."
6. Spitting Feathers
- Someone in a state of distress or anger.
- To lose control of yourself.
- To be agitated.
- To be dry-mouthed or thirsty.
Example sentence: "I only suggested that it was his turn to pay for the round of drinks, but he gave me such a look. It was clear that he was spitting feathers at the thought of it."
7. To Charm the Birds off the Trees
A locution that suggests that a person possesses enough charm to use it to achieve almost anything.
Example sentence: "You need to keep an eye on her new boyfriend—he has a reputation for being able to charm the birds off the trees."
8. Free as a Bird
Meaning: To suggest that you are free to come and go as you see fit.
Example sentence: "I love having no ties and obligations. It leaves me free as a bird."
9. A Bird of ill-omen
Meaning: describes someone who is thought to bring bad luck.
Example: "I would be much happier if Graham weren't part of the project. I've never experienced a good outcome when he's involved—I look upon on him as a bird of ill-omen."
10. Kill Two Birds With One Stone
Meaning: To achieve two objectives by the same means.
Example sentence: "Paying for Sarah's driving lessons worked out well. Not only do I now have my private taxi service, but I also gained kudos as her husband for being so helpful. Now that's killing two birds with one stone."
11. To Have a Lark
Meaning: To indulge in horseplay or joke about something.
Example Sentence: "Its time to get serious and knuckle down to some work, so come inside and stop larking about."
The Lark (Alaudidae)
12. Happy as a Lark
An idiom that suggests a person is very happy or jolly.
Origin: Mention of this bird's song, which is considered beautiful and full of melody, has been recorded for hundreds of years, with references to this produced by Chaucer and Shakespeare.
13. Up With the Lark
Meaning: To rise early in the morning.
Example sentence: "I have a lot to do tomorrow; so I will need to be awake bright and early—I will have to be up with the larks."
14. Birds of a Feather
A derogatory term used to say that you can judge the character of a person by the company they keep. This idiom implies that people will gravitate towards each other based on their beliefs or tastes.
Example sentence: "Tony and Chris are both keen car enthusiasts, and they spend most of their spare time at car events; they are like birds of a feather,"
15. An Odd Bird
- Someone eccentric.
- Not bound by accepted beliefs.
- Someone considered a bit weird.
Example: "Scott was an odd bird. He has a family, but he left his money to a cat charity. He didn't even like cats."
16. One Swallow Doesn't Make a Summer
- Don't rely on just one lucky break.
- One win does not guarantee overall success.
Origin: From an ancient Greek proverb that subsequently entered the English language as a variant on its Greek meaning in 1539.
Today, we use the expression to warn that we should not assume success is on the way on the strength of just one achievement.
17. To Clip Someone's Wings
This idiom describes the act of curtailing or taming someone.
Example sentence: "He is getting above his station, always barking orders like he owns the place. Someone needs to clip his wings."
18. To Make Someone's Hackles Rise
Meaning: to make someone very angry. The hackles are the long feathers on the neck of the domestic cock bird.
Example: "I am fuming! Ronald never lets up for a moment; it makes my hackles rise."
19. Like a Duck to Water
Meaning: a person who can adapt to new circumstances without difficulty.
Ducks hold many characteristics within the spiritual world. They are thought by some to be able to communicate between the physical world and the spiritual world. And yet, there co-exists an alternative view of ducks as being somewhat dim-witted and funny. The cartoon character, Donald Duck, is a prime example.
20. To Get Your Ducks in a Row
Meaning: order and organization.
Origin: Most people believe that this references our feathered friend, the Duck. However, it has its roots in the skittle. It was merely a way of saying to put your skittles back in order.
21. Dead Duck
To say that something is no longer relevant.
Example sentence: "You don't need to worry about that motorway being built on your doorstep—it's a dead duck. Planning permission has been overturned."
22. Play Ducks and Drakes
To take unjustifiable risks. Usually with money.
Example: "He will come unstuck if not careful. He is sinking all his money into a start-up company run by people who have a track record of failing. He is just playing ducks and drakes with his money."
23. Golden Duck
Meaning: a term used in cricket to describe a player being out on his first ball without scoring.
24. To Break One's Duck
Yet another bird idiom related to sport. This idiom means to score a run in the game of cricket.
25. Old Bird
Often used to say that a person is too old or intelligent to be taken in or misled. An example would be the proverb: "You can't catch an old bird with chaff."
26. To Make the Feathers Fly
Several idiomatic expressions are associated with feathers and the feeling of rage or anger.
Meaning: Something that starts controversy or anger.
Example sentence: "I intend to stir up controversy this morning; I expect to see some feathers fly."
27. To Smooth Ruffled Feathers
Describes the act of soothing someone's injured pride.
Example: "I know that Jimmy felt overlooked at not gaining that promotion. I will attempt to smooth a few ruffled feathers by offering him advice on what he can do to be more successful next time."
28. In Fine Feather
Meaning: To suggest that you are in fine fettle or splendid condition.
Example: "Thanks for asking—I'm very well, thank you. I am in fine feather."
29. Love Nest
This idiom describes a place where lovers meet, sometimes in secret.
30. Feather One's Nest
To abuse your position to make money for yourself.
31. Foul One's Nest
- To speak ill of family or friends.
- To spoil what you have already established.
It originates from an ancient proverb that warns: "It is a foul bird that defiles its own nest." It has its source in observations that birds do not poop in their own nest.
32. A Cuckoo in the Nest
To say that there is an unwelcome intruder.
It originates from the observation that the female cuckoo bird will often lay its egg in the nest of another smaller bird. When hatched, the young Cuckoo will push other fledglings out of the nest.
33. A Little Bird Told Me
- Avoids naming your source.
- It is associated with gossip.
To say something, without revealing the source of information.
Often said to avoid naming a person. Usually used when passing on gossip.
Example sentence: "Did you know that Davy won the lottery last year and never told anyone? He will deny it. But I have it on good authority—a little birdy told me."
34. Bird of Passage
This idiom references the migratory nature of many birds and describes a person who is a wanderer.
Example sentence: "It was lovely to see Steven again. Perhaps we see him next year if he ever decides to settle in one place—he's a bird of passage."
Bird Eggs - Here's a Half Dozen More Avian Idioms
The egg is symbolic of many things, including:
It is of little wonder then that our language has such a plethora of egg idioms and phrases.
35. Good in Parts, Like the Curate's Egg
Meaning: the idiom has come to mean something "patchy" and of uneven quality.
Origin: The first recorded use of this term is from a cartoon published in Punch magazine 1895.
The historical cartoon is based on a conversation around a bishops breakfast table, where the bishop says, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!" The curate, who is desperate not to offend, responds with, "Oh no, my lord. I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"
36. Better an Egg Today Than a Hen Tomorrow
Meaning: it is better to have something for sure now than to wait for something that may be of higher value in the future, but which may not be within your grasp.
Origin: This saying originates from the mid-1600s.
37. To Lay an Egg
Significance: A low scoring sporting achievement.
Country of origin: United States of America.
Example sentence: "My team laid an egg, their performance was abysmal. I am so disappointed."
Meaning: keeping a small amount of money in reserve in case of unforeseen circumstances.
The implication is that regularly putting aside a small amount of cash generates further encouragement to save even more.
39. Duck Egg
A cricketing term used to describe scoring naught. Sometimes said as being out for a duck.
40. Neither Fish nor Fowl
To say that something is neither one thing nor another and consequently of no particular use.
Origin: is rooted in the Middle Ages and the fact that different classes of society ate different foods. At this time, fish was the food of choice for the clergy, while fowl (being cheaper and more readily available) was the food available to the less prosperous.
Example: "I don't know what to with this thing. It simply doesn't seem to do anything useful—it's neither fish nor fowl."
41. Get the Bird
If you "get the bird," then you have been rebuffed or greeted with abuse.
Example sentence: "He was so rude! He gave me the bird."
Describes a person who is habitually in and out of prison.
43. Chatter Like a Magpie
Often said when describing children who are constantly chattering.
Example: "My daughter hardly draws breath when she is talking—she can chatter like a magpie."
44. Stuck Up
Said about people who are considered aloof. A saying that has its roots in the peacock's behavior of sticking up their tail feathers. Believed to be a way of demonstrating their superiority over other peacocks.
Example sentence: "Don't be so stuck up! You are no better than anyone else around here."
45. The Bird has Flown
Meaning: a person you are looking for has disappeared—a reference to a bird escaping from a cage.
Example sentence: "I thought I had cornered that shoplifter, but the bird had already flown."
46. Come Home to Roost
The nesting habits of birds have also led to several idioms within the English language.
This phrase suggests that a person's folly or inappropriate act has rebounded on them and that they now have to pay the price for their actions.
47. To Rule the Roost
A saying that tells us that a person is in charge. They are the dominant force in a group.
48. To Crow Over
To gloat or rejoice at the defeat of an opponent.
Example sentence: "He enjoyed crowing over the opposition's lack of goals."
49. Stone the Crows
- An exclamation of disbelief.
- To be shocked.
A British expression. Suggests shock or surprise at something.
A variant of this being "Stone me!"
Example sentence: "Stone the crows! Where did that outburst come from?"
50. As the Crow Flies
Meaning: The shortest distance (in a straight line) between two points.
Origin: an idiom based on the traditionally held view that the Crow always flies back to its nest in a straight line. An outlook, commonly held in the early nineteenth century.
51. Crows Feet
References the lines or wrinkles that often appear beneath a person's eye as they grow older.
Meaning: A cockney use of the word to say "girlfriend."
53. Feather in Your Cap
If you earn a "feather in your cap," you have done something that deserves praise.
Origin: Historians tell us that this has its roots in the ancient Lycians, and later, North American tribes added a feather to their head-wear for each enemy they killed.
54. You Could Have Knocked Me Down With a Feather!
To be so surprised that the mere wafting of a feather could knock you over.
55. Don't be Chicken Hearted
To be cowardly or easily frightened.
Example: "You need to stand up to those bullies, or they will walk all over you. Don't be so chicken-hearted."
56. To be Hen-pecked
Usually used when referring to a husband who is dominated or nagged by his wife.
Example: "His wife constantly finds things for him to do. She never gives him a moment's peace. He is hen-pecked."
57. Like a Hen With One Chicken
To be overprotective of an only child.
58. To Chicken Out
To back out of a situation. To act cowardly.
59. Don't Count Your Chickens
Meaning: You shouldn't rely on your gains until you have them firmly in your pocket.
Example: "Why would you spend so much on holiday? I know you think that you have a good bonus coming at the end of the year, but you shouldn't count your chickens before they have hatched."
60. Chicken Feed
To receive little reward for work carried out.
61. Hen Party
An all-women – women-only party or event.
62. Rare Bird
Meaning: someone exceptional.
Example sentence: "He's a rare bird. So talented. It doesn't matter what he turns his hand to; it's always a success."
63. The Early Bird
This idiom describes someone who rises early in the morning. An example would be the proverb: "It's the early bird that catches the worm."
64. Bill and Coo
To exchange loving words and caresses. The image conjured here is of two Doves—a long-established symbol of mutual love.
65. Don't get Lovey-dovey With Me!
Said in warning, telling a person not to get amorous with you.
66. To Pluck a Pigeon
- To cheat someone.
- To fleece someone naive.
Describes the act of defrauding or duping a person.
Example sentence: "He was so gullible. He never even checked out the guy's credentials before investing all his money in that land deal. It must have been like plucking a Pigeon."
67. Stool Pigeon
An informer or police spy. A hunting expression relating to the practice of tying a pigeon to a stool acting as a decoy for other pigeons. A method commonly used in England around the 1820s.
68. As Gentle as a Dove
To be tender and peace-loving.
69. Goose Pimples
Taken literally, describes skin that is rough and resembles the surface of a plucked goose. More commonly, said when experiencing bumps on your skin when hairs stand on end. This expression describes intense feelings of:
A variant of this being "goosebumps."
Example sentence: "I was so excited at seeing my favorite group live on stage. It gave me goosebumps."
70. Like a Goose in Shoes
Based on a ridiculous and absurd idea of a goose wearing shoes. This phrase means that a person should not waste their effort considering silly and stupid ideas.
71. Wouldn't Say Boo to a Goose
To be timid or unable to make the mildest of protests.
72. Salt in His Tail
A rarely heard idiom these days. It means to apprehend a felon. Understood to stem from the belief that putting salt on a bird's tail made it easier to catch the goose.
73. Cook Another's Goose
To spoil or destroy a person's chances. An expression that first appeared in print around 1850. Thought to have been based on a line in a well-supported play of the day.
A Selection of Bird Idioms - Video
This idiom refers to a military step that involves an exaggerated straight leg movement.
75. All of Your Geese are Swans
Meaning: to suggest that a person has an over-estimate of the value of their ideas.
Origin: based on the tale of the Ugly Duckling, suggests that a person sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. Also, people who see their children as paragons of virtue, when the rest of us see them as something entirely different.
Example sentence: "I admire your optimism, but it is unfounded. I'm sad to say that all of your geese are swans, and you need a dose of reality."
An Idiomatic Poll
76. As Sick as a Parrot
Meaning: To say you are very disappointed in something.
Example sentence: "It doesn't seem to matter how hard I try to finish the decorating to a good standard, it always looks such a mess—I'm as sick as a parrot about it."
77. Parrot Fashion
To learn something by heart. To carry out without thinking.
78. Like a Phoenix From the Ashes
To emerge again after being defeated.
79. As Dead as a Dodo
- No longer relevant
Origin: A British saying with its roots in the extinction of the Dodo bird. The Dodo was a flightless bird hunted out of existence by sailors in the 1600s.
Example sentence: "You should give up on that silly idea of yours; it's as dead as a Dodo."
80. Night Owl
- A person who habitually stays up late partying.
- A person who stays up late "burning the midnight oil."
- To be wayward.
- Lacking restraint.
An expression applied to someone who regularly stays awake until the early hours of the morning.
81. A Solemn Owl
A derogatory term used to describe someone who is straight-faced and lacks humor.
82. As Wise as an Owl
A person said to possess excellent knowledge and common sense.
83. Halcyon Days
Meaning: A time of peace and harmony. Halcyon is Greek for Kingfisher.
84. As Bald as a Coot
Meaning: To suggest that a person is bald.
Origin: The Bald Coot has a broad white shield extending upwards from the base of its bill, giving the appearance of a bald patch and often compared to a bald patch on a man's head.
85. An Albatross Around One's Neck
To be subject to a crippling disadvantage.
86. Stop Beating About the Bush
Suggests that a person should get to the point of their argument or activity.
Origin: This idiom has its roots in the ancient tradition of hunting and shooting game birds. It was always a dangerous pursuit of chasing animals or birds out of their hiding places. And, whether it was a hunter with bow and arrow or a shotgun waiting, the beaters would be in the line of fire. Consequently, beaters would circle the thickets, gradually closing in on the prey, forcing it towards the hunter. It is, therefore, easy to see that this phrase has come to mean that a person is approaching a situation cautiously, rather than tackling it head-on.
Example sentence: "Stop beating about the bush. Just get on and say what you mean."
The cock bird (Rooster) has a better reputation than the lowly Chicken when considering how idioms portray them.
Roosters are often considered:
87. A Cock and Bull Story
Meaning: To tell a highly implausible tale.
Example sentence: "You can't believe a word he says. It's a right cock and bull story."
88. Show the White Feather
Even the Rooster cannot entirely escape the reputation of cowardice often associated with the phrase "to be chicken."
Meaning: To act in a cowardly way.
Origin: This expression hails from the so-called sport of cock-fighting. The breeding of these fighting birds resulted in no pure-bred game cock having white feathers. Consequently, any bird with even a single white feather among its plumage was considered inferior and unlikely to have the required fighting spirit. White feathers became a symbol of cowardice during the First World War.
89. Cockcrow at Bedtime
This expression centers on observations of birds announcing the arrival of rain. In this case, the crowing of a Cock in the evening, which is associated with the onset of rain.
"If the Cocks crow when they go to bed,
They'll sure to come down with a watery head."
90. Beats Cockfighting
To describe something exciting and thrilling.
91. That Cock Won't Fight
To say that a person refuses to carry out an act.
92. Cock a Hoop
Meaning: To be triumphant.
Example: "My team were a totally better class than the opposition. What a turnaround in our performance—I'm cock-a-hoop with the result.
93. Cock of the Walk
To be the champion, or to dominate all rivals.
94. Cock-eyed Scheme
A foolish scheme or activity doomed to failure.
Example: "I can't understand why he believed he could make a fortune selling that old tat! It was surely a cock-eyed scheme from the start."
95. At Cock-crow
Meaning: At sunrise.
96. Flip the Bird
Meaning: A sign of contempt or anger. The act of sticking one's middle finger up at someone. A rude gesture.
A sporting term related to the game of golf used to describe the completion of a hole in three strokes under par. Believed to be so named as an Albatross is a larger bird than the eagle, and even rarer.
A bird that accidentally hits an airplane.
99. Booby Trap
An extension of "booby prize." Makes particular reference to the ease with which these birds succumbed to being trapped
100. The Booby Prize
A prize that most people seek to avoid.
The booby prize is the name attributed to an award for coming last in an event.
Origin: A Booby is a South American bird, reputedly easy to catch. A term reputedly said of dim-witted sailors during the 17th century.
I hope that you found this idiomatic journey of interest and a relatively smooth flight. I am sure many more phrases and expressions can trace their origins back to the life of birds. There are many thousands of species of birds, each with their peculiarities that may strike an accord with human beings. Perhaps you may wish to add them below?
mactavers on September 23, 2020:
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