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What Is a "Bird's Eye View"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom “bird’s eye view” is used to refer to a comprehensive view of something, or in more abstract terms, a full knowledge and comprehension of something. The literal meaning of this phrase is the view as seen from a bird’s eyes during flight. The figurative meaning of the phrase has become common in business, where those who manage projects or companies often want to talk about different perspectives useful in management.

Many attribute the origin of the phrase to the early 1600s. Word historians explain that before human flight was common, the bird’s eye view was a way to describe a total aerial view. Cartographers, navigators or others may have used this phrase extensively, often to refer to a theoretical or inaccessible view.

Generally, the phrase “bird’s eye view” acquired popularity over time, with songwriters and others using it, as well as sailors or others involved in navigation, where a bird’s eye view could be essentially useful. Over time, as the beginnings of mechanical flight developed into commercial air travel and even satellite technology, the concept became not only possible, but common place; the phrase remained popular and is frequently used today.

In its most common modern uses, the bird’s eye view describes not a physical view of terrain, but rather, a cognitive view of a complex project. Many business scenarios now involve intricate setups, with international offices, multiple warehouse locations, and much more, where business assets or business processes can be difficult to track. In these situations, talking about a “bird’s eye view” has become a reference for understanding all of the various parts of a company or project collectively, or “seeing” all of what is happening in a broader scenario. Synonymous phrases include “seeing the big picture” or, in the context of time, “taking the long view.”

More literal uses of the phrase relate to almost any type of aerial view. New cameras and aviation gear can provide a bird’s eye-view of terrain. The types of images shown in popular visual cartography can also be described as showing a bird’s eye view. This kind of technology has aided in developing full aerial cartography of nearly the entire surface of the earth, which is extremely useful for all sorts of planning and administration. Smaller bird’s eye view documents, like blueprints, are critical for planning and managing a building or property.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Mar 13, 2014

@Fa5t3r - I actually had an amazing experience the other day with my nephew over Google maps. We turned on their satellite images and took a look at all the places we had lived in and knew well, like his house and his grandmother's house and where his other aunt lives in Florida and so forth. I took the time to zoom out each time so we could place the houses in the world and then zoom in to see how everything looked from a bird's eye view.

I don't think he had ever seen anything like that. It's one thing to be able to look at a map or a globe, but it's another to be able to zoom in on actual pictures that include your father's car in the driveway of your house and then soar out to show where the local river is and how far you are from the sea. It was pretty amazing.

By Fa5t3r — On Mar 12, 2014

@KoiwiGal - I've found it's actually quite useful when I'm going somewhere new to really look at all the street names and how they are laid out on a map before I go. It kind of gives me a bunch of fail-safes in case I end up getting turned around.

That's using both meanings of the phrase, I suppose, since I'm trying to get a bird's eye view of a neighborhood by learning its basic shape by studying a literal bird's eye view. Google maps is particularly useful for this, as you can trace the streets back to places that you are familiar with and see how they join up.

By KoiwiGal — On Mar 11, 2014

I actually only rarely hear this used in a figurative sense. Usually when I hear people using the term they literally mean a view of an area the way a bird would see it. Usually the same kinds of people who say things like "as the crow flies". I guess they see the world as though it's a map. I can't usually picture it like that, to be honest. I'm better at just memorizing street names and directions.

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