10 Commonly Used Bird Idioms – Part 3

Learn Australia English in this post where I teach you how to use another 10 Commonly Used Bird Idioms that I either frequently hear or use myself.

1. Like water off a duck’s back

Figurative meaning: To have no apparent effect.

Literal meaning: This expression alludes to the fact that when water falls onto a duck’s back it just rolls off the oil coated feathers. 

Example: When you insult me it’s like water off a duck’s back.

2. A night owl

Figurative meaning: someone who is often awake and active late at night.

Literal meaning: Owls are nocturnal animals, which sleep during the day and are active late at night when they hunt.

Example: His dad’s a night owl and works late each night.

3. The pecking order

Figurative meaning: The hierarchy of authority in a group.

Literal meaning: The expression originated from the 1920s when biologists discovered that chickens maintain a hierarchy with one bird pecking another of lower status. It began to be used to refer to human behaviour in the 1950s.

Example: On a covert mission navy seals will have a definite pecking order.

4. To play chicken

Figurative meaning: To play a dangerous game in order to discover who is the bravest.

Literal meaning: If someone is a ‘chicken’ is means they are a coward. So to play chicken implies that you are testing to see who has less courage and is ‘the chicken’.

Example: Two teenagers got into a car accident on the highway while playing chicken.

Other forms: To play the game of chicken.

5. To ruffle someone’s feathers

Figurative meaning: To irritate or annoy someone.

Literal meaning: This idiom is based on the idea of a bird whose feathers are not sitting neat and smooth because of fear, irritation or excitement.

Example: When I took my new job I didn’t mean to come in and ruffle anyone’s feathers.

6. To run around like a chicken with its head cut off

Figurative meaning: To run around frantically and aimlessly; to be in a state of chaos.

Literal meaning: The idea in this idiom is to liken someone’s behaviour to what happens to a chicken when it gets decapitated and continues to kick and flap about frantically.

Example: Every time there’s a crisis she runs around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Other forms: To run around like a headless chicken/chook.

7. To be a sitting duck

Figurative meaning: Someone or something vulnerable to attack, physical or verbal.

Literal meaning: This idiom alludes to an unsuspecting duck floating on the water whilst being hunted by a person or predator.

Example: The deer stood in the clearing like a sitting duck while the hunter loaded his rifle.

8. To spread your wings

Figurative meaning: To start to do new and exciting things for the first time in your life.

Literal meaning: This idiom alludes a fledgling bird learning to fly for the first time.

Example: Once he graduated from high school he could spread his wings and move out of his parents’ house.

9. To be an ugly ducking

Figurative meaning: Someone unattractive or unpromising who grows into an attractive or talented person.

Literal meaning: This idiom alludes to the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen where a cygnet hatches with group of ducklings and is despised for its clumsiness until it grows into a beautiful swan.

Example: He always felt like the ugly duckling growing up in his family with three brothers.

10. To watch like a hawk.

Figurative meaning: To watch someone or something carefully or intensely.

Literal meaning: The idea in this idiom is that someone has the keen eyesight of a hawk and is watching something as a hawk would watch its prey whilst hunting.

Example: Ever since she got out of prison the police have been watching her like a hawk.

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