Bird’s-eye views and headless chickens: animal idioms, part 3

Sandra Standbridge / Moment / Getty Images

by Kate Woodford

This is the third in our popular series of blogs about common animal idioms. We’ll start with a creature that is found in a few frequently used idioms: the bird. (Sadly, the first two idioms have their origin in hunting.) If you want to say that with one single action you achieve two separate things, you might say you kill two birds with one stone:

I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and drop my coat off at the cleaner’s on the way to the library.

To emphasize that something good that you already have is more valuable than something better that you don’t now have, you can say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush:

I’m going to accept their offer and not wait around to see what the other company says. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!

The last idiom containing ‘bird’ is nicer! A bird’s-eye view of somewhere is a view from a high place, that allows you to see a big area:

Get a bird’s-eye view of this spectacular region in a hot air balloon.

Still with birds, we’ll look at two rather negative ‘chicken’ idioms. If someone moves around quickly, trying unsuccessfully to achieve several different things, you might say, informally, that they are running around like a headless chicken:

Isabel looks very stressed. She’s been running around like a headless chicken all morning.

If we say that the chickens are coming home to roost, that means that someone is experiencing problems that are caused by something bad that they did in the past:

The government has neglected this area for years and now all their chickens are coming home to roost.

Pigs are also used in some useful, informal idioms. If you make a pig of yourself, that is a disapproving way to say that you eat too much on a particular occasion:

I made a real pig of myself at Jo’s house.

In UK English, if someone does a task badly, you might say they make a pig’s ear of it:

He painted the front of our house last year and made a real pig’s ear of it.

Finally for pigs, to emphasize that you think there is no chance of something good happening, you might say, humorously, (UK) pigs might fly/(US) pigs can fly:

‘You never know: Lucas might offer to help.’ ‘Yeah, and pigs might fly!’

Next month, we’ll publish the last blog in this ‘animal idioms’ series, looking at an assortment of different animals that includes bears, camels and elephants.


21 thoughts on “Bird’s-eye views and headless chickens: animal idioms, part 3

  1. Francesco

    Thanks a lot for this lesson. In Italian we use the phrase “Prendere due piccioni con una fava” which means “Catch two pigeons with one broad bean”, because in the past broad beans were used for bait in hunting.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Francesco, thanks for that! I love learning different versions of an idiom. The Italian version is somewhat less brutal – I prefer it! Best wishes to you.

    2. Jaime

      I entered Cambridge dictionary looking for the meaning of a expression and found this incredible blog…it’s like I’ve found a hidden gem! Thank you !Is there a list where i could find previous entries?

  2. BRIKI

    Over the idiom ‘a bird in the hand worth two in the bush’ I applied it in my life in the following circumstance: I received an offer of ground’s parcel to replace that I was deprived of before , so I visited where the place was but I saw it was not actually interesting for me . Although I could say not for it , I couldn’t afford to wait more one time because I was not sure for some reasons that this offer will happen again..So I decided to accept the parcel not heartedly of course.The equivalent French idiom is’un tiens ,vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras’.

  3. WONG

    Thank you for you teaching and sharing. Your descriptions and explanations are good because they are easy for me to understand.

  4. Maryem Salama

    We humorously say that a thing will not happen even though a nit (actually not the egg but the very young louse, I don’t know it in English) is going to call for a prayer to express about impossibility!

    1. Dibakar Goswami


  5. phudit

    are these idioms commonly used and understood by all native speakers from other English speaking countries?

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi! Good question! Unless they’re marked specifically UK, they will be at least familiar to US speakers of English. However, idioms do tend to vary to some degree between English-speaking countries so it’s quite possible that they’re not used elsewhere.

      1. Raghav Nehra

        Hey Kate,
        Thank you for the lovely post. In your above-mentioned reply could we write ‘at least’ before ‘be’, that is ‘at least be familiar’ instead of ‘be at least familiar’. I find these parts of a sentence very confusing because i am not sure if there is a particular rule for it? In fact, i will be grateful to you if you can make a blog post on it.

  6. RussellX

    Hi, Kate, thanks for all these excellent and enjoyable animal idioms. I really like them. And I’ve got through extra 2 relevant posts and shared them to my friends, I think it is very helpful. Btw, this is my first time to comment on a post, cus your posts are extraordinarily outstanding!!!

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