A watch of nightingales. A charm of goldfinches. An unkindness of ravens.
A typical person would be forgiven not recognizing this peculiar nomenclature for our feathered friends, but a dedicated birder might recognize them. Whimsical and charmingly impractical, many of these collective nouns are part of the lore of birding.
"Birders often start spontaneous trivia games during long drives. It's fun, and trivia about names for groups of birds is always popular,” said Gary Langham, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. “I still don't know what a skein of geese is exactly, but wondering is half the fun."
The collective nouns for birds are tricky. Kettles and quarrels can refer to groups of hawks and sparrows, respectively, but not any other birds. We can talk about an ostentation of peacocks, but it would be incorrect to call a group of turkey by the same name. No, that would be a rafter of turkey.
Author James Lipton (that’s right, from Inside the Actor’s Studio) brought many of these designations for birds back to the forefront in his book, An Exaltation of Larks. Lipton drew many of the archaic terms from the Book of St. Albans, alternatively known as the Book of Hawking and Hunting, printed in England by St. Albans press around 1480. The book was essentially a reference guide on the three Hs: hawking, hunting and heraldry, the preferred pastimes of the British aristocracy.
Some of these names aren’t so obscure. We still refer to a gaggle of geese and a part of jays.
Palomar Audubon has listed its own list of collective nouns.
Here’s a list of our favorites:
- A bellowing of bullfinches
- A storytelling of crows
- A paddling of ducks (on water)
- A huddle of penguins
- A wedge of swans (flying)
- A descent of woodpeckers
- A bouquet of pheasants
- A confusion of guinea fowl
- A trembling of finches
- A screech of gulls