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I really have looked, but the best I can come up with is this

To say that something is "for the birds" is to call it horse manure. Dating from the days of horse-drawn traffic, the expression is the answer to a child's question: "Mommy, what's all that stuff in the street?"

Perhaps I need to get out more (not that there's much of it around where I live), but I find it hard to believe that of all the things it might be known for, bird food should be considered an archetypal use for horseshit. Is that really the origin?

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2 Answers 2

From Phrases, Cliches, Expressions on www.joe-ks.com:

For the birds

Meaning: Something that is worthless.

Origin: Before the advent of cars, one could see and smell the emissions of horse-drawn wagons in New York. Since there was no way of controlling these emissions, they - or the undigested oats in them - served to nourish a large population of English sparrows. If you said that something was for the birds, you're politely saying that it's horse crap.

Example: His apology, after his deliberate and harmful actions, was for the birds in everyone else's eyes.

...and then there are the following two quotes from the Bible which if interpreted the same way, would put the usage way before the 20th century:

Isaiah 18:4 For this is what the Lord has told me: “I will wait and watch from my place, like scorching heat produced by the sunlight, like a cloud of mist in the heat of harvest.” 18:5 For before the harvest, when the bud has sprouted, and the ripening fruit appears, he will cut off the unproductive shoots with pruning knives; he will prune the tendrils. 18:6 They will all be left for the birds of the hills and the wild animals; the birds will eat them during the summer, and all the wild animals will eat them during the winter.

Jeremiah 16:4 They will die of deadly diseases. No one will mourn for them. And they will not be buried. Their dead bodies will lie like manure spread on the ground. They will be killed in war or die of starvation. And their corpses will be food for the birds and the wild animals.

(from the website: 10000birds.com as an answer to the question, "Why is 'for-the-birds' a bad thing?")

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Interesting. Your citations are from a 1999 translation, and the Isaiah passage is translated "unto" or "to the birds" in KJV and ASV, the most likely versions to feed into the phrase; KJV translates the Jeremiah "fowls", but ASV does use "food for the birds of the heavens". –  StoneyB Dec 21 '12 at 4:51
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Apparently the Venerable Bede (673–735 AD) was sent to take over as top cleric at York. When he arrived and saw whatever derelict hovel was then on the site of what's now York Minster, he said it was fit only for Birds to build their Nests in. Looks like the Christian church has always held birds in low regard! –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 18:10

According to the Phrase Finder,

It is US Army slang and originated towards the end of WWII … a shortened form of the vulgar version 'that's shit for the birds'. That suggests the derivation of the phrase which is the habit of some birds of pecking at horse droppings (a.k.a. road apples) in order to find seeds. Both versions were defined in an edition of American Speech from 1944:

That's for the birds. It's meaningless

Shit for the birds. Nonsense, drivel, irrelevant matter.

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Hmmm. I can't read the whole context, and it might be misdated - but to me at least, this 1935 instance of that's for the birds argues against shit for birds to eat. Seems more like an allusion to being for bird-brained/flighty people, or maybe airy-fairy/lightweight/castles in the air sort of stuff. I shall wait to see what else emerges. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 0:05
    
Well of course, there would have been things which are intended for birds ("Is the new cage for the hamster or rabbit?" "Why, it's for the birds"), but at least online, I could only find the sense of "worthless things" in postwar works, when the phrase also sees a big uptick in popularity. books.google.com/ngrams/… –  choster Dec 21 '12 at 0:20
    
Ah, right. First time around I couldn't see enough context - I just saw that "I told him it was a piece of silliness" occurred somewhere just before the search phrase, and assumed they were connected. I've now sneaked up on it from a different direction and discovered the speaker had apparently just flung away something she didn't want to eat. So you're quite right - it's just a literal usage. –  FumbleFingers Dec 21 '12 at 0:34

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