Quotes and proverbs about birds

I love birds and I love quotes and proverbs. So naturally, I find quotes and proverbs about birds very cool. Today is my first day of the Christmas holidays and we have terrible weather. Therefore, I felt like researching a bit on quotes and proverbs about birds. In fact, that’s something I wanted to do for a long time.

As you can imagine, there are hundreds of quotes and proverbs about birds. I selected a few that caught my eye. I hope that you do like those as much as I do. In my eyes, there is not always one explanation of a quote or a proverb. I, therefore have been adding my interpretation. Let me know if you would understand things differently.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

„A bird in the hand is worth two in the bushes“ is likely one of the most well-known proverbs about birds. It suggests holding on to something you have, instead of taking a risk of trying to get something that may come to nothing. Even what you have might be less (one bird) than what you may get (two birds). Therefore, it can be understood as a warning message to take unnecessary risks. Moreover, it may be seen as a teaching of being satisfied with less even if more would be possible theoretically.

I did find a very interesting article saying that this proverb goes back to medieval falconry. The article suggests that the bird in the hand is a falcon. The two birds in the bushes are its prey. As a result, the meaning may be slightly different. Since we don’t talk about similar birds but about a bird of prey and its prey. Therefore, it could be understood in a way that the falcon (the bird in the hand) is a valuable asset. Certainly more worth than its prey (the two birds in the bush).

Under those circumstances, I would think that the meaning of this proverb is not fully clear. In fact, it may have various origins. There is a very similar German saying. „Lieber den Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach (Better to have a sparrow in your hand than a dove on the roof (Linguee)„. Unlike in the English version, the talk is about two different bird species. The sparrow indicates a very common bird compared to the more beautiful dove. The meaning of the proverb therefore would go hand in hand with the above first interpretation. To be satisfied with what one has. Even if it doesn’t seem to be a lot compared to what theoretically would be possible but may come to nothing.

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sparrow hand fed

Bring owls to Athens

To „Bring (or carry) owls to Athens“ describes a meaningless or pointless exercise. I kept hearing and saying this, as I understood its meaning. However, I never really understood why bringing owls to Athens would be pointless.

The saying goes back to the comedy poet Aristophanes. He was claiming that the inhabitants of Athens were very rich people. To understand this quote, we need to know that the little owl (Athene noctua) was portrayed on Greek silver coins. Therefore, having a lot of owls was meant as a synonym for having a lot of silver coins. Hence, it’s pointless to bring owls (silver coins) to Athens as everyone already had enough.

Wise like an owl

Owls are amazing birds and therefore I very much like the proverb „wise like an owl“. As a bird nerd, I however know that there are much wiser birds than owls such as e.g. ravens and crows. So why don’t we say „wise like a raven?“. The proverb is traced back to the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom Athena. She had a little owl at her side (the same little owl from the silver coins just mentioned above). This owl had the ability to light up Athena’s blind side enabling her to always talk the truth.

Because most owls have great vision and the ability to see in the dark they have been associated with wisdom by many ancient peoples. Hence the true origin of this saying might be much older than ancient Greek.

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ural owl

A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song.

„A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song.“ This quote may be interpreted in different ways. My personal interpretation is that the bird sings because it’s his nature. It doesn’t require reasoning. In other words, the choices we make come naturally. I found the following site that is sharing my interpretation.

The origin of this has created some heat. The US postal service released a stamp of the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou with a quote that wasn’t entirely hers. I had to do quite some research as different internet sources credit it differently. According to quoteinvestigators.com their final conclusion is that the quote should be credited to John Walsh Anglund’s book “A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems” printed in 1967.

As a side note, I would like to highlight that birds sing for different reasons. You can find a very good summary here.

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red robin

I know why the caged bird sings

„I know why the caged bird sings“ is yet another quote that often falsely is credited to Maya Angelou. The reason might be that she has published her autobiography with the very same title. The book was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970. It is listed as #3 on TIMES Magazine’s All-TIME 100 Best Non-Fiction Books.

The quote in fact originates from the poem „Sympathy“ written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. He was one of the first influential Black poets in American literature.

I think the meaning of the quote is clear. The bird is caged and can barely move not to mention fly. His singing is a voice of sorrow, fear, hope, and sadness. In fact, it’s his only form of expression. The cage in the case of Maya Angelou is suggested to be a synonym for racism, sexism, insecurity, poverty, and abuse.

Unfortunately many cultures still these days keep birds in captivity. In very small cages with clipped wings and tied up feet. This technique leaves the bird with nothing else than singing. I have witnessed this myself during my vacation in Ibiza. An elderly lady had a freshly captured European goldfinch in a cage about the size of the bird itself.

The finch tried to escape, was frightened and exhausted at the same time. I called the lady out begging her to let the bird fly. Another local guy came and started to explain to me a fucked up (excuse my French) story about tradition. At one point I offered him money to buy the bird out. At some other point, the discussion almost ended in a fistfight. It still breaks my heart to remember that I let the little bird down. Before the situation escalated, I had to turn my back to the guy. Otherwise, things may have gotten sideways.

You can cage a bird, but you cannot make him sing

„You can cage a bird, but you cannot make him sing“ sound like the opposite of what we have just discussed above. I wasn’t able to track down the origin of this saying. Some websites suggest the proverb is of French origin but I didn’t really find any good source for it. Sir Elton John uses the sentence in „Cage the songbird“ feature on his 1976 album „Blue moves„. However, I don’t think he can be credited for the quote. As a side note, this was before I was born. Sir Elton John still makes music. Holy smokes.

I interpret this in a way that you can’t control or enforce certain things. Regardless of how much pressure or restrictions or violence you put on them. For instance, if you physically control something or someone (by caging) you may not control (break) its or his mind. It’s the bird who decides when to sing.

God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loves the birds and invented cages

The quote „God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loves the birds and invented cages“ is credited to Jaques Deval. I do think that I understand the „obvious“ message. I would assume it addresses mankind’s destructive behavior towards mother nature, its animals, and towards each other. God gives freedom to the things he loves. Mankind wants to own and control those things by caging them. 

However, I think the proverb shouldn’t be looked at from a religious perspective as other sources suggest. According to the Bible, God created the trees before he created the birds. Hence, he didn’t create the trees for the birds. Therefore, I would think it would be wrong to assume that man wanted to mimic god.

Above all, I believe that it’s not about judging if someone understands a proverb „correctly“. The beauty of it is that people have interpretations and take different learnings out of it.

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blue tit

Birds of a feather flock together

„Birds of a feather flock together“ mean that people of similar interests or ideologies group together. I would think that it can be used both with good or bad intentions.

The expression is traced back to William Truner in 1545 whereas it’s unclear if it has been used before.

I found a very similar Corsican proved saying „Crows with crows and ravens with ravens“. This likely has the same symbolic meaning as the one above. As you may know, I am a big fan of Corvids (the crow family). Therefore, I know that ravens and crows don’t get along with each other. Perhaps this observation had an influence on the origin of this saying. But maybe ravens and crows have been „only“ used as they look alike but are different.

No matter how high a bird flies, it has to come down for water

I  very much like the proverb „No matter how high a bird flies, it has to come down for water“. I interpret this in a way that you always have to ground yourself. Possibly also connect with your roots regardless of how successful you may be.

However, after having thought about it for a while another idea came to my mind. Water is a life elixir and so is love. Hence this quote may be understood in a different way. No matter how much you achieve in life you always are dependant on the elixir of life, love.

Above all, the source of this proved is unclear and may have different origins such as Africa, the Netherlands as well as Denmark.

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When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber

The former Englisch prime minister Winston Churchill said „When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber“.

By all means, this would be a good leadership proverb when it comes down to communication and transparency. I understand it in a way that eagles represent dominant and powerful people. The parrots stand for the chattering crowd. Hence, once the people in charge stop communicating rumors are being spread.

However, it may also be understood in a way that the crowd (parrots) are filling the silence with unimportant chatters. This reminds me a bit of the quote „Speech is silver, silence is golden“ that values silence over speech.

A bird does not change its feathers because the weather is bad

„A bird does not change its feathers because the weather is bad“ is a proverb originating from either Nigeria or Mozambique. This is a lovely saying. It reminds me of always being true to myself and having a stable mind. I understand this proverb in a way that change of weather indicates temporary, sudden, or frequent change. In such situations, it’s important not to be a flag in the breeze (there is a German proverb „wie eine Fahne im Wind„).

In addition to the above, the proverb may also be understood differently. For instance as a kind of a warning message. Bad weather could indicate difficult situations. In such situations, you would need to know who holds true to you and who lets you down. The birds (people around you) that change their feathers (don’t back you up) are not to be trusted. It’s the ones that don’t change their feathers that will stand by your side.

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buzzard on a snowy day

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings

As the last saying of my list of quotes and proverbs about birds, I would like to quote the 19th-century writer William Blake. „No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings“. I think this is a very interesting quote and in fact, I may not be able to reveal its true meaning.

When I first read it, I understood it in a way that a bird won’t fly with its own wings onto a height it can’t handle. However, if it would rise with the support of others, it may reach a height it wouldn’t manage. Therefore, this might be kind of a warning message.

I then looked at it from another angle. It may could also mean that the bird doesn’t leave its comfort zone as long as it soars with its own wings. As long as the bird believes in itself, it always will be able to fly at a height it can handle. And obviously, the sky is the limit.

After having a coffee, I looked at it again. It may tell us that the bird can’t fly up to a certain height without the help of others. Hence one in life can’t achieve everything on its own but requires sometimes the support of others.

To confuse me entirely I then played around with another idea. The bird can only soar on a height he, in theory, can’t manage, by being placed there by someone. If e.g. someone is appointed or elected only because whoever made the pick is a family relative. The selection didn’t happen because of expertise. The person may therefore not be able to succeed because he or she misses the required skill. In addition to that, the appointed one may not get the respect of others.

Final word

I had a blast doing this little research of quotes and proverbs about birds. In conclusion, I would like to close this post with a quote from one of the greatest boxers, in my opinion, of all time.

„It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” – Muhammed Ali.

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fighting eagles

Let me know your thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you. If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss.

Love and protect wildlife

Animals are awesome and need our protection. Please don’t hurt, kill or eat animals.

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