“Birds of a feather flock together” is an old English idiom that refers to the natural habit of birds to fly in groups or flocks.
Birds move in flocks to keep them safe from predators, but they don’t fly with just any other bird – they fly with birds of the same breed. You won’t see crows flying with finches – unless they’re trying to eat them.
Let’s Break it Down
“Birds of a feather” means birds that have the same feathers – ie. look the same. It is not to be taken too literally since the males and females of most bird species look very different from each other. So, it refers to the specific species of bird.
“Flock together” refers to the act of flying in a group. Many different types of birds fly in groups – some in organized V formations, like geese, and others in rolling masses called murmurations, like starlings and quelea.
How Does “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” Relate to Humans?
Although we are not birds, humans tend to have similar behavior – we group together according to the things that are important to us.
Whether it is our race, our language, our beliefs, our hobbies, our interests, or our passions, there is usually something we have in common with the people we spend the most time with.
Think about the people you spend your time with – not your family, but your chosen company, like friends and colleagues. If you’re really into video games, you probably spend a lot of your free time with other gamers, or if you like to spend time outdoors, you might be part of a hiking group or a sports club.
However, unlike birds, humans can be a part of a number of different groups. None of us is a bird of just one feather. Maybe you spend your weekday evenings gaming and your weekends hiking.
Each of these activities will likely give you access to different people, and you can hang out with the ones that are relevant to what you want to do that day.
The expression also tells us that you can learn a lot about a person by looking at who they choose to spend their time with.
If you are considering dating someone, but they like to hang out with people who are mean and small-minded, you can probably assume that they are similar, and not great dating material.
How to Use Birds of a Feather Flock Together
“Birds of a feather flock together” is usually used to point out that someone has something in common with someone else. It is also often used in a negative way to point out a group of people who are doing something you don’t like. Here are some examples of relevant uses for the idiom:
- “My husband has been playing tennis with his friend all day! Birds of a feather flock together, I suppose.”
- “Those kids from the chess club are absolutely inseparable. Birds of a feather flock together!”
- “Those kids at the skate park are so rowdy! Birds of a feather flock together.”
The saying is often used as an anapodoton – a well-known sentence or phrase that can be cut in half and still understood. With this particular expression, we only need to say the first part because the second half is implied. For example:
- “I can’t get my friend to do anything fun with me – she only hangs out with her church buddies – birds of a feather, I guess.”
- “I know you don’t like my friends, but they’re the only people who understand my love of horses. Birds of a feather, you know?”
Some other examples of well-known anapodota include:
- “When life gives you lemons…” (you make lemonade)
- “When in Rome…” (do as the Romans do)
- “When the going gets tough…” (the tough get going)
Similar Phrases and Expressions
There are a few idioms and expressions with similar meanings to “birds of a feather flock together.” Here are some examples:
- “Of like mind” – meaning that 2 people have similar ways of thinking or similar beliefs.
- “Cast from the same mold” – meaning that 2 or more people have similar qualities.
- “On the same wavelength” – meaning that a group of people are all in agreement about something.
- “Kindred spirits” – meaning that 2 people are very similar in many ways and get along very well as a result.
- “Like attracts like” – meaning that people with similar interests or personalities will be attracted to one another.
- “Two peas in a pod” – meaning that 2 people are very similar to each other.
There is also some speculation that the “birds of a feather” phrase has been cut short from a longer one with a different meaning: “Birds of a feather flock together until the cat comes.” Since there is little historical record of this expression, we can assume that the last part was added later to express someone’s disappointment and distrust in the people around them.
In this form, it means that people stick together until things get tough, and then your friends will desert you. It refers to the type of friends who are only around when things are going well – also known as “fair-weather friends.”
History of Birds of a Feather Flock Together
This expression is very old, possibly going back as far as the writings of Plato 300 years before the common era, and a mention of the flocking of birds is also found in early translations of the Bible.
However, records are a bit spotty, so the saying is usually attributed to William Turner in his papist satire of 1545, The Rescuing of Romish Fox.
English was a very different language back then, and changing fast. The expression was originally written, “Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”
However, its first known use in a similar form to how we use it today was only a few decades later. It appeared in 1599 in a Spanish and English dictionary as “Birdes of a feather will flocke togither.”
The expression “birds of a feather flock together” could have been around as long as 2300 years, but it is usually attributed to a writer from the 1500s, William Turner. It has changed slightly since then, but the meaning is the same.
The saying refers to the fact that birds stay in groups of the same species, and relates to humans because we tend to hang out with people who have the same passions, hobbies, beliefs, and interests as us.
You can use the expression to point out that a group of people are very much the same as each other in some specific way.
It is often used as an anapodoton – a phrase that works, even if only the first part is used – so you can simply say, “birds of a feather,” instead of the whole thing, and anyone who knows the expression will understand you.