‘to be a box of birds’: meaning and origin

The Australian and New-Zealand phrase to be a box of birds, and variants, mean to be in good spirits, ‘chirpy’. Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) wrote the following in A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990):

box of birds Equivalent to ‘in good spirits’: N.Z. rather than Australian.

The image is of a boxful of chirping birds—cf. in quotation 5 below, the extended form happy as a bird in a box of birdseed.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase to be a box of birds and variants that I have found are:

1-: From On the Mercy of the Court: A Short Story by “Nineteenth”, published in the Dalby Herald (Dalby, Queensland) of Friday 25th August 1939:

“You know I was out at a party the other night,” she giggled, “and Bruce Pepper said to me—do you know Bruce? He’s such a box of birds—well, anyway, he said to me [&c.]”

2-: From The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Queensland) of Sunday 12th July 1942:


By Sidney J. Baker, who is compiling a dictionary of Australasian English, and who has written two books on slang.
Australian servicemen in this war are building up as rich and as varied a slang vocabulary as their predecessors of the last war.
Naval Terms
To feel like a box of birds: To feel happy, chirpy, full of beans.

3-: From That Summer, a short story by the New-Zealand short-story writer and novelist Frank Sargeson (Norris Frank Davey – 1903-1982)—as published in The Penguin New Writing (London: Penguin Books, 1943):

‘Hello Terry,’ he said, ‘how’s things?’
‘A box of birds,’ Terry said.
Well, you mightn’t believe it, but I woke up early feeling just like a box of birds.

4-: From The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), by Sidney John Baker (1912-1976):

to feel like a box of birds, to feel happy or “chirpy”.

5-: From the caption to the following photograph, published in Truth (Sydney, New South Wales) of Sunday 12th January 1947:

Happiest man at Randwick yesterday was owner J. Cloros. He’s owned only one gee-gee, and that’s Prince Mohican. And with three wins in a row he’s happy as a bird in a box of bird seed.

6-: From an interview of Nancy Wake, by Ruth Park, published in The Herald (Melbourne, Victoria) of Friday 18th November 1949—born in Wellington, New Zealand, Nancy Wake (1912-2011) was a prominent figure in the French Resistance during the Second World War:

Nancy Wake has, as a political candidate, come in for a lot of publicity as the woman who broke German sentries’ necks in the late war, but actually she doesn’t look anything like that.
She doesn’t speak, either, like a man with a beard and a heavy cold. Despite her harsh experiences she is as bright as a box of birds, laughs easily, and is lots of fun.

7-: From Jimmy Brockett: Portrait of a Notable Australian (London: Britannicus Liber, 1951), by the Australian short-story writer and novelist Dal Stivens (1911-1997):

When we set out this Sunday morning in the Russell for Sadie’s people’s place at Mosman, I was feeling as happy as a box of birds.

A New-Zealand variant of the phrase is to be a box of fluffy ducks, also to be a box of fluffies. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from New Zealand on foot, by Cecil Kuhne, published in The Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida, USA) of Sunday 9th September 1990:

New Zealanders have made slang a national art.
An “alpine stick” is a hot dog; “big bickies” is lots of money; “bubble and squeak” is a vegetable hash; a “goggle box” is a television; and “berk” is a jerk. An eccentric is sometimes said to be “as silly as a two-bob watch,” and a person doing well might be heard to remark, “I’m a box of fluffy ducks today.”
If someone says he’s going to “tingle you up,” don’t be concerned; it means he’s going to call you on the telephone. One who is angry is “cheesed off” or “got his knickers in a twist.”

Max Cryer recorded box of fluffies—and box of budgies *—in The Godzone Dictionary of Favourite New Zealand Words and Phrases (Auckland: Exisle Publishing Limited, 2006).

*The noun budgie is a colloquial abbreviation of budgerigar, denoting a small Australian parrot—cf. ‘budgie smugglers’: meaning and origin.

The variant box of fluffies occurs in Hunter’s Mark, independently published in 2018, by the New-Zealand author Wendy Smith:

“Hey, you old bitch. How are you?”
Despite her obvious tiredness, she smiles. Mum and I have always had an open and honest relationship. Or at least, I thought so until I discovered the line of crap she’d fed Adam for years. It’s the one thing I know of that she kept from me.
“A box of fluffies. Isn’t that what the Kiwis say?”
I sit on the side of the bed and lean over to kiss her temple. “You’re as much of a Kiwi as I am, Mum.”

One thought on “‘to be a box of birds’: meaning and origin

  1. “I’m a box of birds”, used by the (60+) main character in the Australian movie, June Again (2020). I’ve not heard the phrase in the wild, and had to look it up because it was so evocative. Sorry it seems to have fallen from use, at least here in Queensland. Thanks for the interesting read.


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