Have you ever been told, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? Did you understand the speaker’s message to you? If not, don’t worry. This post will explore the meaning, as well as origin, of perhaps one of the English language’s best-known proverbial sayings.
What Does a Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush Mean?
Like many other English proverbs, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush offers a warning, specifically a warning about risk-taking. The expression conveys the idea that it may be better to hold onto what you already have than to risk letting it go in hopes of finding something better. In other words, it encourages taking the sure bet, or what’s certain and guaranteed, rather than gambling on an uncertain outcome. Think of many classic game shows, which award contestants a prize and then ask if they want to trade that prize for what’s concealed behind door number 1, 2, or 3. Often, when the contestant risks it, they find something less valuable or desirable than what they already had, or even nothing at all, behind the mystery door they chose.
This phrase can be used to talk about tangible items, as above, but also when discussing work opportunities, relationships, and so on. You’ll often see or hear the saying shortened to a bird in the hand.
Here are some example sentences using the proverb a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush:
- I love my current job and my coworkers. Recently, a recruiter reached out to offer me the same position with a competitor company. I know they say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but it’s possible I could have more room for promotion there over time. I’m really not sure what to do.
- When I asked my mother for advice about my troubled marriage, after sharing that I might be starting to have feelings for a coworker but that my husband really wanted to work on things, she simply said, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
- Last year, I had the opportunity to invest in a really neat startup. I would have had to dip into my retirement savings, though, and I plan to retire next year. Ultimately, I decided that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
- As a collector, sometimes I learn the hard way that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: I don’t sell an item when the price is high in hopes that it’ll just become worth more and more over the years, only to see its value in the market decline.
The Origins of the Expression
What is considered the earliest usage of the phrase in English dates to the 15th century, to 1450, and the work The Life of St Katherine of Alexandria by John Capgrave. Although it does not appear in that work exactly as we know and use it today, Capgrave’s version of the saying, written in Middle English, certainly translates very closely to today’s proverb: “It is more sekyr [certain] a byrd in your fest, Than to haue three in the sky a‐boue.” An earlier 13th Latin century saying also translates almost identically, suggesting one bird in the hands is worth more than two in the woods. A 1470 Middle English version translates exactly to this Latin saying. And a 1546 glossary of proverbs by John Heywood, called A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue, contains a variant that ups the number of birds beyond two and three: “Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.” (One bird in hand being better than 10 in the wood is also attributable to Hugh Rhodes.) It seems a 1670 collection, A Hand-Book of Proverbs by John Ray, features the saying just as we use it today, with a (one) bird in the hand and only two birds in the bush, not woods.
However, the idea appears to have been expressed in other ways long before any of these uses. For instance, the ancient Assyrian sage Ahiqar, or Ahikar, is thought to have offered up a similar proverb, which translates roughly to “better is a sparrow held in the hand than a thousand flying in the air.” Another similar proverb also appears in the Bible in Ecclesiastes, specifically Ecclesiastes IX: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
It’s thought birds in the expression are a reference to falconry, or the use of a trained bird of prey for hunting wild animals. In falconry, the bird in the hand (the falcon, or the hunter) is more valuable than two in the bush/woods (the prey being hunted).
What Is a Proverb?
The popular expression a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush isn’t the only popular proverb that issues a warning, encouraging one to stop and think. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that glitters is not gold both remind that looks can be deceiving, and to pause and evaluate before making a choice or judgement.
The Psychology of the Proverb
As shared above, proverbs are said to share universal truths. But often, they leave those who read or hear them asking if the message they share is really truth and not fiction.
Of course, that’s ultimately for you to decide. But experts have weighed in here. For instance, although the author of an article on psychologytoday.com looks at both possibilities—that it’s better to hold out for more and that it’s better to stick with what you’ve got—he ultimately falls on the side of the proverb’s wisdom. He points out that when we focus on the future, we’re distracted from the present, suggesting that future-orientation is a form of greed, while present-mindedness fosters gratitude for what we have. Studies link gratitude with not only increased satisfaction and mental well-being but also better physical health.
The definition of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is that it’s better to have something (whether a tangible thing, or relationship, or advantage or opportunity), even if small or imperfect, than to take the chance of losing that thing for something seemingly more desirable. It stresses appreciating what you already possess, and warns against taking an unnecessary risk on potential. The phrase is sometimes shortened to a bird in the hand.
PS: Did you know… there’s a small town in Pennsylvania called Bird in Hand?!