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What Does "Cat among the Pigeons" Mean?

By Bethney Foster
Updated May 17, 2024
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The phrase “cat among the pigeons” is an idiom that usually includes "putting" or "setting" the cat there. It is used to refer to someone who takes some type of action, usually intentionally, that causes a disturbance. In many instances, it refers to a disturbance that is violent in nature or a statement or action that causes people to become exceedingly angry or alarmed.

The idiom comes from Britain and refers to the commotion that would ensue were a domestic cat to be released among captive birds. The cat would chase the birds, and the birds would become frightened. The cat would be likely to injure or harm the birds, and there would be a disturbance that could be described using another common idiom, “feathers will fly,” which refers to feathers flying through the air when a large flock of birds is suddenly disturbed or frightened.

Idioms are phrases common to a language or culture that are used to express an idea using a figurative example. The example is not meant to be taken literally, but because the person hearing the phrase is expected to know what the phrase describes, it is meant to convey a figurative description. For example, a speaker might say, “Revealing the minister’s mistress set a cat among the pigeons.” The speaker doesn’t literally mean a cat was released among the birds, but is describing the disturbance that likely resulted in the minister’s church once it was revealed that he had a mistress.

As with many idioms still in use, the phrase can be traced to a time when people lived more closely with animals and when the majority of people were involved with agriculture. The phrase likely came into common usage when keeping a dovecote, or dove house, was common in Britain. Pigeons were kept as a food source, and most people would have been familiar with the chaos that ensued if a cat got into the dovecot or if someone intentionally put a cat in the dovecot.

The phrase has lent itself to literary and musical references. Agatha Christie’s 1959 detective novel and Julia Golding's 2006 young adult novel are both titled Cat Among the Pigeons. The British pop band Bros also released a song in 2005 named for the phrase.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Jun 19, 2012

@browncoat - I don't know about pigeons, but I do know that our cat was bullied by ducks when we spent a few years living on a small farm. She was fairly scared of them too and I don't think they were all that much bigger than a pigeon.

I think that back in the day when the phrase was coined, the word pigeon applied to doves as well as pigeons and they probably weren't as big as they are now either.

Putting a cat amongst the pigeons them would have really left the little doves to be picked off one by one. The modern use of the word pigeon refers to the very large rock pigeon most of the time and they are tough birds who might be able to take on a small cat.

By browncoat — On Jun 18, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Trust me, even if your pigeons were the biggest, baddest birds around, they would be terrified by a house cat and the house cat would almost definitely find the hunter within as soon as it was given the chance.

I wouldn't have thought my little cat was any kind of hunter. She mostly likes sleeping in the sun and playing with bits of string. But the other day she managed to bring home a rat almost as big as she was, and you know that a rat wouldn't have gone down without a fight.

I can't imagine that a pigeon would do any better. The only thing would be if you have a dozen pigeons in one place, they might hurt the cat simply by sheer numbers.

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 17, 2012

I've kept pigeons and while I've never deliberately put a cat among them, obviously, I wonder actually if they could hold their own against the average house cat.

My birds were bullies and were willing to peck at anyone who wasn't treating them with complete deference. I kept other kinds of birds in the same aviary with them until I realized the pigeons were pulling out the feathers of the other birds.

I can't help but wonder if a pigeon might not fight back if a cat went in among them, particularly if it was a house cat that had no real experience of hunting.

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