I am reading B. Traven's adventure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is about three men who secretly go prospecting for gold. On their way home with their new-found loot they cover their tracks by tearing down their mining camp. Howard (the most experienced of the party) verbally beams with pride over a job well done. Dobbs, another member, takes offense at Howard's response. The quoted section can be found here:

The mine was leveled to the satisfaction of Howard. Anybody now coming upon the mine by chance would never think that a mine had been worked here, or if at all, not during the last hundred years.

"Doesn't it give you guys a real joy to look at the place now?" Howard asked with pride in his voice.

"All right," Dobbs said, "you have it your way and you feel happy, so please, for the love of Mike's booze, leave us in peace with your feelings. Sometimes I think you must have been a preacher, only the hell of it is I can't figure out what church it was you wanted to catch birds for."

When I found a definition of bird (Definition 5.a) that is slang for fellow, I took Dobbs' words to catch birds for to be reminiscent of the Christian saying fisher of men, meaning the minister is actively looking for people to convert. In past conversations, Dobbs has been known to use slang like mug to refer to people. But being more familiar with the usages meaning a young woman or a person, especially one who is odd or remarkable, I thought this usage unlikely and continued to look for another.

So I wondered if Dobbs was making an allusion to bird dogs, who retrieve birds for their masters. (One might say a minister retrieves the lost for a higher power, a superior in the church or for God.) This could be an insult to Howard, the slight being that Howard would be a subordinate instead of the senior/equal he was when mining with Dobbs. This insult makes sense in this context, because Dobbs has a history of viewing Howard as a taskmaster, as shown by Dobbs's outburst when he cuts his own hand at the beginning of the chapter. But this analogy of bird dogs seems tenuous and elaborate.

I've searched Google for "catching birds," but the most relevant results are the proverb "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." I wondered if Dobbs was speaking of some duty, tradition, or superstition associated with ministers, but I have found nothing.

What does "to catch birds for" mean?

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    Could you add a bit more of the dialogue before the phrase in question? Offhand I can’t think of any better explanations than what you’ve already come up with, but more context might bring on an epiphany. Jul 27, 2013 at 19:07
  • I don't understand why you describe "bird == fellow" as "unlikely"; the dictionary says it's been used that way, and you don't seem to offer any reason to disbelieve the dictionary on this point . . .
    – ruakh
    Jul 27, 2013 at 19:09
  • Is it possible to tell (from the story) what religion or faith Dobbs and Howard belong to? I've not read the book myself.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2013 at 19:11
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    It could be that in the US Catholic priests used to capture doves before celebrating Easter, and then released them at the end of the Holy Mass to symbolise the ascent of the Holy spirit or something like that. I'm a bit rusty.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2013 at 19:26
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    I think you're onto something, @Mari-LouA. At least one member of the party (Curtin) is from TX, so that first link could make some sense. It says first annual hunt was 1930s, but this takes place in 1920s. But maybe Dobbs caught wind of it from the native Curtin before it was an organized event. (The mining party had been working together for some time by this point.) My opinion is all the members are nonreligious. They have been working/living in areas that have had Catholic influences, so European traditions make sense too.
    – user39720
    Jul 27, 2013 at 19:48

2 Answers 2


I imagine it's an echo of this expression (as defined by OED)...

(strictly) for the birds
trivial, worthless; appealing only to gullible people. orig. and chiefly U.S. colloq.

Dobbs clearly isn't interested in anything Howard has to say. He's implying that despite Howard's "evangelical" enthusiasm, nobody else would be interested either, except gullible people as above.

OP is on the right track with bird = fellow - but here it's specifically birdbrained (stupid) fellows. The word catch is also used figuratively here (Dobbs means interest, draw in, captivate, impress).

  • This makes sense too. Dobbs strikes me as a cynical personality. More than that, the party has just escaped the clutches of a vicious gang of thieves that devastated a train stealing gold for God. It's a confusing situation and it's unclear at the moment what Dobbs's opinion is on what's causing the violence (Howard, for instance, seems to blame gold over religion). Dobbs may be taking out his frustration on religion here.
    – user39720
    Jul 27, 2013 at 20:06
  • @dingo_dan: I haven't read the book, but in the movie Dobbs is as cynical as any character played by Humphrey Bogart. He definitely wouldn't have any time for religion, churches, preachers, etc. Jul 27, 2013 at 20:15
  • Yes, but Dobbs is aiming his criticism at Howard.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2013 at 20:19
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    @Mari-Lou: Your answer, drawing a link between Dobbs's birds and the use of doves in certain [sometimes, religious] ceremonies, is "interesting". But I don't think it's got any connection with either what Dobbs the fictional character or Traven the author actually meant by the usage here. Jul 27, 2013 at 20:38
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    @dingo_dan: The reference to birds is just a one-off - nothing odd about that (there never was any related expression involving doves). Maybe Dobbs says Mike's booze because he's wishing he had some, I don't know. Anyway, I just found an online copy, from which it's obvious in the next chapter that the author likes taking pops at representatives of organised religion - the holy persons who take care of [a local icon] and are in charge of everything, including collecting the fees. Jul 28, 2013 at 3:11

It could be that in the US Catholic priests used to capture doves before celebrating Easter, and then released them at the end of the Holy Mass to symbolise the ascension of the Holy Spirit.

In Italy there are several festivals that celebrate Easter by releasing doves in the air. I was wondering if they did the same in the US.

La Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza - Abruzzo Region

Sulmona, in the Abruzzo region, celebrates Easter Sunday with "La Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza"

"On Easter Sunday people dress in green and white, colors of peace, hope, and resurrection, and gather in the main piazza. The woman playing the Virgin Mary is dressed in black. As she moves to the fountain, doves are released and the woman is suddenly dressed in green.

I found this Youtube clip filmed at Santa Jose, 2013, entitled: "The releasing of the holy ghost doves today." Skip to the 3.40 mark to see the dove being freed. The video is very dull and amateurish but it proves (to me) that even today, in some parts of the US, this tradition still carries on.


I think you must have been a preacher, only the hell of it is I can't figure out what church it was you wanted to catch birds for.

Dobbs insults Howard by calling him a preacher this leads me to speculate that Dobbs was not "born" in the Catholic faith, (priests are not normally referred to as preachers) however, by mentioning birds and asking who Howard caught them for, it is possible that either he was familiar with the Easter festival tradition of releasing live doves in the air or maybe he was attempting to cover up his background by ridiculing his (plausible) religious upbringing.

Not having read the book I can only make suppositions, but the dots do connect.

  • This meshes with the story really well. Do the ministers do the actual catching? If not, it may be Dobbs's error.
    – user39720
    Jul 27, 2013 at 19:54
  • No, not any more. I don't know if the doves are bought, or kept in coops today in those regional festivals which still uphold that tradition. The majority of Catholic churches in the North of Italy no longer follow that practice.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2013 at 20:09
  • @dingo_dan I'm not 100% certain about priests actually capturing the doves, but if you recall the first link I posted there are priests in Texas who hunt and kill these birds today. So if a so called priest can kill an innocent animal, it's logical to presume that in the past (no longer true in Italy at least) some actually captured these birds.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2013 at 21:29
  • I have finished the book. It's hinted that Dobbs' mother, who knows what real haggis tastes like, is Scottish (Ch. 23). Howard and Dobbs may have been raised Protestant: Howard thinks he can convincingly bluff government officials into thinking he is a Baptist preacher (Ch. 18); Dobbs refers to "Sunday school" (Chs. 19, where he ridicules his religious upbringing by calling his teacher a "dried-up hussy," & 20), and strangers who waylay him label him as Protestant (Ch. 24). Also, I think it's plausible the men came across this or some other rite in their travels. Thanks!
    – user39720
    Aug 3, 2013 at 15:47
  • So I was right! (Well, I think so considering all the references to religion) Thanks for letting me know.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 3, 2013 at 16:57

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