When I hear the old adage “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” I can’t help but nod, smile, and think immediately of my field work. Nothing is more infuriating than seeing birds “in the bush” that never end up “in the hand” (by way of the net…)!
When bird banding, “in the hand” literally describes a bird that is becoming a series of data points. By catching a bird and handling it, you can learn it’s sex, measure the length of its bill, wing, tail, leg, etc, check to see if its carrying visible fat, evaluate the condition of its feathers, find out how much it weighs, take photographs to document its plumage, take a feather or blood sample for lab analysis–the list goes on and on. It’s amazing how much information can be gleaned from one bird in the hand. With enough individual birds (and some of the same birds caught multiple times across months or years), each data point–which is relatively meaningless on its own–becomes part of a powerful data set. When analyzed, these data sets can shed insight on any number of questions relevant to ecology, evolution, and conservation.
But, of course, bird banding is not where the “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” phrase originated, nor what people mean when they use it today!
Apparently, the phrase originally referred to falconry, as a falcon (the “bird in the hand”) was a valuable asset and could be used for hunting (the “birds in the bush”). The earliest known printed variant of this phrase is “A byrd in hand is worth ten flye at large,” published in 1530 in The Boke of Nurture or Schoole of Good Maners. The earliest known printed version of the phrase, as we know it today, was “A bird in the hand is worth ten in the bush,” published in 1670 in John Ray’s A hand-book of proverbs.
During the Middle Ages, Bird in Hand became a common name for English pubs. Like many British place-names, Bird in Hand came to the US, and there is actually a small town in Pennsylvania called Bird-in-Hand, named after an early Inn (which was built in 1734 and still exists!). Because the name could be both written and drawn with the image of a bird in a hand, it was easily recognized by travelers who were illiterate or who didn’t speak English.
With a completely different take on the expression, Amy Ray, from the Indigo Girls, has a solo song titled Bird in the Hand in which she uses the phrase to beseech a potentially unfaithful lover to pay more attention to the current relationship–the bird in the hand. It’s not exactly a happy song, but I like her use of the bird metaphor in a familiar yet slightly unexpected way.