Phil Hardy — A bird’s-eye view: bird sayings

Published 9:53 am Friday, August 31, 2018

Have you ever wondered where old sayings and/or terms come from? I have. I’m talking about sayings we have used all of our lives and quite possibly never really gave much thought as to their meaning or origin. Let’s explore some of these sayings about birds.

AS THE CROW FLIES: This idiom is obvious and means the shortest distance between two points or a straight line. The irony is that crows don’t always fly in a straight line and are known to swoop, dive, and even circle around the tree that holds their nest possibly checking things out before landing. I read that before radar was invented crows and ravens were kept onboard ships at sea. During periods of poor visibility a bird would be released. Sailors would observe the bird that instinctively heads toward land for a navigational heading.
EATS LIKE A BIRD: The phrase means to eat very little and may have come about from observing birds pecking for seed or bits of grit on the ground. But frankly the opposite is true; birds eat a lot in relationship to their body size. The phrase eats like a horse is the converse.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TOGETHER: This straightforward saying means that people with similar interests, views, and characteristics tend to seek one another out and associate with each other.
COLD TURKEY: According to Wikipedia, this phrase refers to the sudden cessation of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco instead of gradually quitting. In some instances, delirium tremens (DTs) have been experienced causing “goose bumps” which resemble the skin of a turkey.
LIKE A CHICKEN WITH ITS HEAD CUT OFF: When killing a live chicken for the stew pot or frying pan the usual practice was to chop the head off using an axe, hatchet or machete. The resulting decapitation triggers instinctive reflexes in the bird resulting in its running and generally thrashing around. Some people tend to act this way.
A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH: It means that it is more profitable to have and to hold onto something than to let it go in pursuit of something perhaps more valuable but uncertain that you will obtain it.
CRAZY AS A LOON: In Shakespearian times “loon” was a term of abuse and presumed to be a shortened form of “lunatic.” Some people were thought to go mad during the full moon. Others say the beautiful yet haunting call of the Common Loon, often given at night, resembled the cry of a madman or of someone insane.
BIRD BRAINED: Is often used to describe a dull or stupid person. The phrase may be dated to c.1600, suggesting flightiness. In actuality, birds have shown, in study after study, to demonstrate remarkable intelligence. Some species can recognize individual people and use tools. Others have shown the ability to count, mimic different sounds, and even recognize complex shapes.
CROW’S FEET: Refers to wrinkles found at the outside corners of the eyes and dates back to 1400. Some thought the wrinkles reminded them of the foot of a crow. And, for your information, there is a Crowfoot, New Jersey.
IN THE CATBIRD SEAT: To begin with, yes, there really is a bird by that name. The migratory Gray Catbird can be found in the lower half of the United States and gets its name from the oft given meow call that mimics a cat. Author James Thurber’s short story, The Catbird Seat, may have been the first usage of this phrase. It means that someone is in an enviable position. Sports commentator Red Barber (1908-1992), who broadcasted play-by-play games for the Yankees, Dodgers, and Reds, used the term to describe a batter that had three balls and no strikes. The batter had the upper hand or advantage and was thus “in the catbird seat.”
A SITTING DUCK: Refers to someone that is in danger of attack or in a vulnerable position. When hunting for food, it’s easier to shoot a duck sitting quietly on a pond than one flying 40 mph high overhead. Male ducks are especially vulnerable in late summer when they undergo a molt process known as eclipse plumage. Unlike other birds, male ducks drop all of their flight feathers at once and are thus flightless for a short period. They are quite literally a “sitting duck” during this period and quite vulnerable to predation.
HAPPY AS A LARK: Apparently larks sing more than other bird species. Hence, when people sing they are usually happy.
YOUR GOOSE IS COOKED: Refers to someone that is about to face the consequences for his/her actions and is in big trouble. This phrase may have come from the Council of Constance in the year 1414. The Catholic Church found Johnathan Huss guilty of heresy and he was burned at the stake. Huss in German was translated as “goose” and was literally cooked. Years later Martin Luther continued in Huss’ footsteps.
AN ALBATROSS AROUND THE NECK: It means a heavy psychological burden or guilt associated with one’s actions from whence there is no escape. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a sailor shoots and kills an albatross. Their ship encounters bad luck and the other sailors blame the one who shot the sea bird and force him to wear the dead bird around his neck. Ancient mariners considered it good fortune to encounter an albatross on a voyage. To kill one was to bring bad luck.
TO KILL TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE: This saying simply means to accomplish two tasks simultaneously thus eliminating further effort. An example might be to pick up the dry cleaning while on the way to get the kids from school.
SOAR LIKE AN EAGLE: The prophet Isaiah wrote in this oft-quoted passage of eagles, “But those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31.
Here, in North America, we have two eagle species: the Golden Eagle and the Bald Eagle. Both species are migratory. Eagles are equipped with large wings that are long and very wide. Large wings like this serve a purpose and that is to cover great distances with very little effort. This process is known as soaring. Eagles have been known to sometimes sit patiently for days until just the right winds and weather patterns develop. They will flap their wings, thus expending energy, to fly into a thermal. Thermals are warm columns of air rising from the earth. Once in a thermal the eagle can then spread its wings and rise to great heights — even to three miles above the earth. Eagles can cover 400 to 500 miles in a day this way with little energy expended.

Please take time to enjoy our native birds and remember to keep cats indoors, where they belong.

Phil Hardy, a birdwatcher and bird photographer.