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What Is a "Bird Brain"?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2016
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A bird brain is an individual who seems to have difficulty focusing on the events that are occurring in the immediate area, or to participate in them in any logical manner. Sometimes used as a designation for someone who is esteemed to be somewhat stupid or ignorant, this idiom can also refer to someone who is known to exhibit a short attention span, especially as is relates to carrying on a conversation. A bird brain is often considered flighty and may even be thought of as slightly self-centered, owing to the sudden tangents that may take place during an attempt at conversations.

The exact origin of the English saying is lost to history. While references in the literature and media during the 20th century made ample use of the phrase, there are those who trace the origins back several centuries. In general, the term is thought to be applicable whenever an individual exhibits some of the aspects associated with birds, such as quickly landing in an area, jumping about and then just as quickly taking off for another destination. The reference has to do with the small size of a bird’s brain, indicating that the human who is identified with this label is operating on little to no brain power.

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At times, idiomatic expressions of this type are employed as terms of endearment and affection. For example, a loved one may refer to a friend or relative who tends to wander off topic during a conversation as being scatterbrained or a bird brain. In this setting, the trait may be seen as somewhat amusing and provide an insight into how the person’s mind seems to work.

The designation of bird brain may also be less than flattering. The term may be directed at someone who has evidenced a serious lack of judgment that indicates an inability to think things through before taking an action. For example, a server who delivers a cup of tea to a customer rather than the coffee that was requested, the customer may be angered by the mistake and refer to the server as a bird brain who can’t manage a simple order with any degree of accuracy.

Most of the traits assigned to the bird brain are evidenced by people in all walks of life. For the most part, no one functions as a bird brain all the time. Factors such as stress at home or in the workplace can sometimes lead to an inability to concentrate or accidentally taking actions that are in appropriate for the setting. Fortunately, the bird brain state normally passes when the underlying causes of the stress are eliminated and the individual can once again think clearly.

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Cageybird
Post 2

I had a friend back in college a lot of people called a "bird brain". She wasn't dumb, but it took her a longer time to catch on to something new. If we told her the cafeteria was closed, for example, she'd get this confused look on her face and stare at us. She'd finally say "Oh, yeah, the cafeteria. Was I headed there?". A minute later, she'd talk about something else.

I realize now it wasn't nice to treat her like a child because she was a little slow on the uptake sometimes. I try not to label people as "bird brains" these days, but sometimes the description is apt. I just have to wonder if they have an actual mental issue that affects their ability to stay focused, like ADHD or something similar.

Phaedrus
Post 1

I don't know if I'd ever call someone a bird brain to his or her face. They'd know right away I was insulting their intelligence. I might say they seemed to be a little scattered today, but "bird brain" is a little more direct. That's not to say I haven't run into some people who deserved the honor, but I have found that some otherwise intelligent people can have problems with focus at times.

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