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Bird Idioms


Dear Bird Folks,

Have you seen the new movie, The Goldfinch? A reviewer in one of our newspapers apparently didn’t like it, as he said it was “for the birds.” This got me wondering, where did that expression come from? Why is something that is bad considered to be for the birds?

– Rick, Falmouth, MA


No, Rick,

I haven’t seen that movie. At first, I was looking forward to it, but after watching the trailers, I discovered the movie isn’t about birds at all. Did you know that? I didn’t know it and was really disappointed. There aren’t nearly enough bird movies being made in Hollywood these days and when they finally got a chance to make one, they blew it. Instead they made a suspense drama. Suspense drama? Ugh! I suppose if I want to watch a bird movie, I’ll have to look for something else. I hear One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is good. That’s about birds, right?

After I received your note, I did a little digging into bird-related expressions and idioms, and it turns out there are a lot of them. The list I found includes: “swan song,” “thin as a rail,” “chicken out,” “crazy as a loon,” “naked as a jaybird,” “cold turkey” and everyone’s favorite, “the birds and the bees.” Out of all the idioms, my least favorite is “kill two birds with one stone.” I don’t even want to discuss that one. I’m also tired of hearing “for the birds.” Nearly every day someone walks in and says, “This place is for the birds.” Really? Are we still doing that? And it’s always a middle-aged-plus guy. Women never say it. (Thanks, ladies.) That lame expression is wearing on me, but I suppose it shouldn’t. A birding shop really is for the birds, and for the people who enjoy them. So, why does “for the birds” mean something bad? There are several possible sources, including the Bible. So, I’m blaming all of this on the Bible. (Don’t tell my mother.)

Back in the days before cars, horses used to be our main form of transportation, even in the city. Horses eat oats and other grains, and often those grains passed through the animal and ended up in the street in the form of lovely manure. The manure might be gross to us, but the birds (mostly House Sparrows) loved it. Folks thought the birds were actually eating the manure, when, in fact, they were just picking out the undigested grains. But either way, the nasty stuff in the street was considered to be “for the birds.” Other sources suggest the expression dates back to Biblical times. After a plague (the Bible loves to talk about plagues), the corpses were left unattended, unburied and, you guessed it, for the birds.

Now that we have finished that joyful topic, here’s another. When I first heard “naked as a jaybird,” I immediately pictured a molting Blue Jay. After all, the jays are molting right now and many of them have lost so many head feathers they appear to be bald. Like The Goldfinch movie, however, that expression has nothing to do with birds. Jailbird is slang for a prisoner, which was soon corrupted into jaybird. Got it so far? When criminals first arrived at a prison, they were made to remove all of their clothing, just to insure they weren’t hiding a cake with a file in it. Since then, anyone streaking or skinny-dipping is said to be naked as a jaybird. This leads to another question: Why are prisoners called “jailbirds” in the first place? Here’s where things get even cheerier. Back in the medieval days, convicts were often locked in iron cages, which were then suspended above the ground. They were in hanging cages, just like birds, and thus became jailbirds. Fortunately, we don’t do that to people anymore, but unfortunately, we still do it to birds.

Speaking of naked, this is where the expression “cold turkey” is presumed to have come from. People who are trying to quit addictive substances, such as drugs, alcohol or chocolate (good luck with that last one), are known to become pale, cold and clammy during withdrawal. The suggestion is that they resemble a turkey found in a meat market cooler. But the expression might be a little deeper than that. Since Wild Turkeys regularly communicate to each other with soft chatter, human conversation is sometimes referred to as “turkey talk.” And when the conversation is less congenial, it becomes blunt or “cold.” Thus, cold turkey has more to do with a frank discussion and less about a naked bird in a meat market.

Here’s another happy one: “swan song.” It means a last performance or the end of someone’s career, such as Tom Brady’s final game…sixty-two years from now. Since swans aren’t noted for their singing skills, it’s odd that such an idiom would be attributed to them. Our old friend Aesop gets the credit here. The story goes that a swan was headed for the cooking pot, so in order to save itself, the bird burst into song (which normally it couldn’t do) and was spared. Another theory is a bit more biological. When a swan dies, the remaining air in its lungs escapes, producing a haunting sound. Both explanations are creepy, so take your pick.

Forget what the movie reviewer said, Rick. Anything that really is “for the birds” is a good thing if you ask me…except for maybe that goldfinch movie. But thanks for the question. It made me realize how many bird idioms there are. I didn’t even have time to discuss “the birds and the bees.” But it’s just as well. I want to do a little more personal “research” on that subject first. (Don’t tell my mother.)