When calling it a flock just isn't good enough

With spring migration upon us, we’re going to be seeing a lot more birds. And with that will come opportunities to see birds in groups. While most of us will be content to refer to these groups as flocks, we can be more specific than that – way more specific. For instance, did you know that a group of nightingales is called a watch? Two or more goldfinches, and you have a charm. Several ravens are called an unkindness. A typical person would be forgiven not recognizing this peculiar nomenclature for our birds, but a dedicated enthusiast (be it for birds or arcane language) might recognize them. Whimsical and charmingly impractical, many of these collective nouns are part of the lore of birding. (photo: a tidings of magpies by Rich Hansen)

“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, Audubon’s Chief Scientist. “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 (the guy from “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” no kidding) 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 inEnglandbySt. Albanspress 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 posted its own list of collective nouns, and it's quite extensive.

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
  • An exaltation of larks
  • A screech of gulls
  • A murder of crows
  • A storytelling of crows
  • A chain of bobolinks
  • A cover of coots
  • A siege of herons
  • A parliament of owls
  • A scold of jays
  • A paddling of ducks

O, we could go on forever …

(adapted from an earlier post by Adele Melander Dayton)


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