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What Does "for the Birds" Mean?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most idioms contain at least elements of image and metaphor. Many are also rather like very condensed stories. The idiom “for the birds,” which is used in casual conversation to indicate an idea or object is completely useless, contains all three.

When something is labeled as being for the birds, the speaker is generally speaking with disgust. The idiom is a way of dismissing someone else’s idea or something more tangible, such as a project or plan, as worth little to nothing. The image these three words conjure is of something that has been thrown out the window like garbage, something that only birds would have any interest in.

That image carries a subtle subtext. Birds have long been viewed as simple creatures lacking any kind of intelligence. This is seen in another idiom, “birdbrains.” The implied message is that something that is interesting to birdbrained individuals lacks the necessary substance or importance to be of value to anyone with intelligence.

Something that is for the birds can be discarded out of hand, and no one is likely to object. To protest such a strongly expressed dismissal might suggest the protestor is a type of birdbrain as well. Rather than stand accused, most participants in such a conversation will step aside and allow the seemingly worthless notion or activity to be ignored, abandoned, and ultimately destroyed.

Historically, the phrase “for the birds” first became popular during World War II. It was based upon a cruder expression that conjured the image of birds feasting on cow or horse manure, hunting for seeds or undigested grasses. The expression became army slang for anything that was pointless, ridiculous, or simply without value to any but the most pathetic or least capable. In order to become incorporated into daily conversation as an expression, however, it needed to be cleaned up. The direct reference to manure was neatly eliminated, and the phrase shortened to the same three words that are used today.

While many English idioms have jumped the puddle and are widely used in England and other English-speaking countries, this is not one of them. Interestingly, the phrase enjoys its greatest popularity among American seniors and the very young. Perhaps this is because elders have used the expression since their own youth when it became popular and, as all new idioms do, seemed charged with meaning and fun. Youngsters like it simply because of the image it creates; they are equally fond of other idioms that contain animal life, such as “a fish out of water” or “a memory like an elephant.”

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Discussion Comments

By orangey03 — On May 05, 2012

@cloudel – I can see how this phrase would make a bird lover angry. I think of it as more of a matter-of-fact statement in some cases, though.

It is a well known fact that birds feast on little things. This is more scientific than derogatory. They just can't fit big things in their mouths.

I think it is more insulting to the human who made the suggestion than to the birds. Though something might be little and insignificant for us, it could be the perfect size for a bird.

By OeKc05 — On May 04, 2012

My grandfather used this phrase, but he did so in a way that gave it a double meaning. He absolutely refused to eat any sort of seed, so any time that we roasted pumpkin seeds or got a bag of sunflower seeds, he would say that they were for the birds.

He would pass by the table while we were snacking on them and scoff at us. He always used to say, “You might as well take those seeds and stick them in the bird house, because they are for the birds!”

We would just grin and continue eating them. Birds must have really good taste, because those seeds were delicious!

By Oceana — On May 04, 2012

I never knew this phrase originated in the military. I never would have guessed that it started out as a manure-eating reference!

I'm glad they did clean up the phrase before it became popular. My little kids love using this idiom, and I think it's cute, because it makes them sound so intelligent.

Just the other day, I asked my six-year-old daughter if she would like to make paper dolls with me, and she said, “Mom, paper dolls are for the birds!” It took me aback, and I laughed out loud.

By cloudel — On May 03, 2012
What we see as garbage, birds see as treasure. I don't think this makes them airheaded!

Just because they like to eat seeds and crumbs that we might sweep off the table, they don't deserve to be dismissed as silly. Maybe we humans are the dumb ones for getting rid of the morsels instead of consuming every bite.

I am all about birds, so this idiom kind of rubs me the wrong way. I realize that most people would never think twice about it.

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