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What does "a Bird in the Hand is Better Than Two in the Bush" Mean?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” also sometimes given as, “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush,” is a proverb saying that it is better to stick with something you already have, rather than pursuing something you may never get. This proverb is a very popular warning, widely used in many English-speaking countries.

The phrase seems to have originated at some point in the 13th century, in a related Latin form: Plus valet in manibus avis unica quam dupla silvis. This can be loosely translated as, “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the woods.”

The basic warning of this saying is that you must take care not to get too greedy in life. If you are holding a bird in the hand, you have your meal for the evening. You can take that one bird, and be well fed. If instead you let it go to pursue two birds you’ve spied in a bush, you may catch neither, and wind up hungry for the night. This proverb points out that by passing up a sure thing for a more promising possibility, you also run the risk of losing both the sure thing and the promising possibility.

The saying may be used to refer to any number of things, in many different situations in life. Since the core concept is one of staying away from greed, it is often very apt. In gambling, for example, a person who has won a fair amount of money and wants to bet it all once more might be reminding that he has already made a profit, and by pursuing even more money, he may lose it all.

The concept demonstrated by the proverb can be looked at more closely using a game theory analysis. In this, we would have to also examine the probability of catching the two birds in the bush. Then we could begin to better calculate the relative values of the bird in the hand, and the bird in the bush. Different strategies would then manifest themselves: an extremely cautious strategy would of course always keep the known quantity, even if the chance of catching the two birds in the bush was 99%; a balanced strategy might advocate keeping one bird as long as the chance of catching the birds in the bush was less than 50%; and an extremely bullish strategy would always go for the two birds in the bush.

Some people also respond to this proverb, not necessarily accepting the wisdom that a bird in the hand is in fact better than two in the bush. People who respond are usually pointing out that while something that is known and possessed might be certain, the unknown could have a value far exceeding the known. A response might be something like, “a bird in the hand is good, but a bird in the bush might sing.”

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Discussion Comments
By anon976166 — On Oct 31, 2014

People interpret it as meaning having a bird in the hand then you shouldn't go after the bigger prize, since you might loose both. Tthis is a very capitalist view, regarding gambling etc.

It has nothing to do with "going after the bigger reward." The phrase is referring to the fact it is better to have a small amount of something, than a large amount of nothing.

In other words, something in the hand is better than a whole lot of nothing. For example, if your neighbor has a bigger house than you, well at least you also have a house/roof over your head even if it's only small, since there are some people who have no house at all.

This is more demonstrated by the Arabic expression a starling in the hand is worth a thousand in the sky.

Having a bird in the hand, at least you have food for the day, because it's better than not having a bird in the hand, but there being 2 or 10, or 100 birds in the bush.

By anon278123 — On Jul 04, 2012

This is the only website where I got what I really wanted. Good job you've done with the website. I really was in an emergency situation.

By anon275963 — On Jun 21, 2012

Aesop, the Greek storyteller from about 600 B.C., apparently used it first.

By anon251459 — On Mar 01, 2012

It could have meant different or been mixed up. It isn't necessarily meant like you interpret it.

By anon226453 — On Nov 01, 2011

The bird in the hand is worth two in the bush makes me think of the geico commercial.

By anon212566 — On Sep 07, 2011

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. If a bird in the hand means, keep what you've got and don't be greedy, then shouldn't the second part say isn't worth two in the bush because two in the bush could be more valuable than a bird in the hand.

By anon163319 — On Mar 27, 2011

I feel it would be more appropriate for the phrase to be:

"*Sometimes* a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,"

which basically communicates the idea that hey, you know you've got something in your possession right now, and it's probably better to be satisfied with what you've got than risk losing it to chase more, because that's greed, right? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. This way, the phrase isn't a concrete message saying don't chase more.

The reason i think this is perhaps more appropriate is because sometimes we need to risk it all in life to achieve our goals dreams and aspirations. For example, I have a good paying job but i want to become wealthy and to do that i must give up this job. I must learn to create massive value by building businesses and helping others. Therefore, i must go after that "two in the bush." So, "Sometimes a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," but not this time.

We need to grow and to grow we must sacrifice, so sometimes it might actually be better to sacrifice that bird in the hand. Just my two cents.

By anon149854 — On Feb 05, 2011

Having something in your possession is more valuable than potential gain. You don't have to give up what you have to get more, it just illustrates that a sure thing is twice as valuable as a possible thing. But that doesn't mean don't try to get it.

By anon139498 — On Jan 04, 2011

A bird in the hand is better than two in a bush, but I am where i am because i have always pursued the two in the bush!!

By anon137409 — On Dec 27, 2010

A little money is better than nothing at all. Be happy of what you have today. Only a fool worries about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

By anon136641 — On Dec 23, 2010

"A bird in the hand" is a statement referring to what an individual already possesses. "Two in the bush" refers to what is present outside of one's possession. "Bush" may refer to the unknown. So the interpretation may relevant to risk.

If someone possesses something, whether it be a relationship, property, job, or other aspects of possession, it may have a considerable amount of risk to remove that item of possession to seek its improvement.

So, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." could mean "keep what you have now because the risk of improving it is unknown."

By anon135703 — On Dec 20, 2010

I heard this saying years before the GEICO commercial.

By anon132369 — On Dec 06, 2010

It's obviously clear that those who were looking for what "worth two in the bush" meant saw the geico commercial and want to know in terms of the auction, how much two in the bush goes for in quantity.

However, there is not a known quantity and I would say the commercial, as with the other geico commercials, was simply meant to be funny. She wanted to auction off a bird in a hand and he could only tell her it was worth, as the proverb says, two in the bush.

By anon130773 — On Nov 29, 2010

i don't get it. none of the answers make sense for this. if it is worth money, then how much, how much money is two in a bush?

By anon129454 — On Nov 23, 2010

I first heard this saying in a Geico commercial.

By anon121850 — On Oct 25, 2010

very well said, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. profit is profit and as long as you make some type of profit you're good. Don't be greedy know when to get enough. Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. basically, be satisfied and have gratitude and not attitude.

By anon116482 — On Oct 06, 2010

A bird in the hand is worth... all the posts refer to a lack of mentality. A lack of faith. To take any proverb as conventional wisdom, therefore lacks wisdom and relies only on intellect.

This proverb is about trusting God's best. Seeing with eyes of faith rather than eyes of sight. So all of the posts are limited in scope because the lack of a level of maturity that enables one to walk across the bridge as you build it.

By anon107540 — On Aug 30, 2010

Hey - anon106351, you raise an interesting point, but your job analogy is only true if the "better" job is attained before quitting the "decent" one. The proverb would warn you against quitting your job today going after one you haven't landed yet.

By anon106351 — On Aug 25, 2010

I would argue this point as holding people back. It’s telling people: don’t risk quitting your ‘decent’ job for what you may think is a better one. Because after all, a decent job is better than no job at all.

By anon105265 — On Aug 19, 2010

It seems to me that "A bird in the hand is 'worth'...is a common mis-phrasing of the proverb. If, in fact, the proverb is a warning against greed, then the words "more than" would follow the word "worth". Otherwise, as written it makes no sense because it doesn't set up a proper analogy.

By anon100155 — On Jul 28, 2010

Another possible variation: "Keep the one that is worth the value of two ." lol!

By lmorales — On Jul 08, 2010

Actually anon89686, both interpretations are right; yours and what’s written above.

While the saying most certainly has deeper roots than the sales floor, with many different variations to boot, it means just what you say. It’s better to have some sort of advantage rather than no advantage at all. The saying has changed over the course of literally hundreds of years, but the end result remains the same.

While some people will say that it’s a warning others will argue with the same point of view that you have. I, however, think that it’s open for interpretation.

By anon89686 — On Jun 11, 2010

This isn't what this means at all. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a sales expression meaning take even the lesser sale as it is better than nothing.

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