Season of Hummingbirds

My first full season of feeding and watching hummingbirds is coming to an end. I thought I would get tired of cleaning out feeders on a regular basis, but, no, all I did was add a couple of more feeders. I’m not enough of an expert to be able to give an accurate count, but I did have at least two adult males on a regular basis and probably a couple of females. In the middle of the season, several more hummingbirds began to come regularly. At least three of them are juvenile males making me assume the females had a successful season with hatching and bringing out their young. It will be interesting next year to see how many of these males show up to stake out their territory.

The tongue is out!

Any time I interact with nature–whether through observation or studying the life cycles of plants, birds, or animals–I am reminded anew of God’s majestic, artistic creation and His unmatched imagination in creating both the hummingbird and the woodpecker; the whale and the seal; the butterfly and the daylily.

“Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize him in; he set before your eyes all these things he has made. Why look for a louder voice?” Augustine of Hippo

Birds of a Feather

For anyone who innocently believes you can just call a flock of birds a “flock of birds,” I’m here to enlighten you. All birds are not alike and neither are their group names. Some of these names are as charming as some minor league baseball team names (looking at you Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp) and others are, well, for the birds. (Sorry!)

So, how did these different names come about and why? Isn’t enough to know those are robins gathered round? Or do we need to know they are actually a ’round of robins’? (Though others state it is a ‘worm of robins’.)

As with many odd questions that pop in my mind, this is one that led me down a few rabbit trails, but, fortunately, others have already been down those trails and have done the necessary research to discover the origin of these terms, most notably James Lipton in his book, An Exaltation of Larks.

First, these are called “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” and these collective nouns don’t just pertain to birds but also animals and groups of people.

In the late Middle Ages, inventing animal group names started as a game, soon became a fad, and turned into a challenge which lasted a couple of centuries. (Please remember there were no entertaining blogs such as this one to read in those days).

As James Lipton put it in An Exaltation of Larks, “What we have in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur philologists have been playing for over 500 years.”

To organize these terms and to make them more official, they were gathered together and published in works that the upper classes used to make sure they did not embarass themselves by using the wrong terms. (For example, it was considered bad form to call a “scurry of squirrels” a “bunch of squirrels”).The first of these was The Egerton Manuscript published in 1450.

“The terms were codified during the period when the river of words was approaching its greatest breadth, beginning in about 1450 with The Egerton Manuscript.” (Lipton)

Then came the The Book of St. Albans (also known as The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms) published in 1486 and containing 164 terms. Many of these terms were not for animals but groups of people and were meant to be humorous (“a sentence of judges”, “a melody of harpers,” “a gagle of women”). However, the book’s popularity caused them to become part of the Standard English lexicon.

But I digress. Back to the birds. Here are a few examples:

Group of hummingbirds: Charm (Not sure where this could have come from. The only groups, sorry, charms of hummingbirds I see are chasing each other wildly in what seems to be a pretty selfish defending of territory).

Woodpeckers: descent (Some say this is because they start at the top of a tree and come down, but I have definitely seen them ascend as well as descend).

Descent of Downy Woodpeckers

chickadees: banditry (This is seems oddly appropriate).

A pair of bandits

cardinals: college, deck, Vatican (Several choices here. I prefer a “Vatican of cardinals.”)

finches: charm, trembling

doves: cote, dole, dule, bevy, flight, and piteousness (We always call the ones at our feeder “the drama queens”).

Ducks: Ducks on the water are called a “paddling” or a “raft.” (Mallards have their own terms and as the different writers seem to disagree on this, I will not distinguish between the different types of ducks. This has become confusing enough as it is).

Flamingoes: flamboyance. A flamboyance of flamingoes. This is not easy to say (or spell). Go ahead. Try it a few times.

Hawks: kettle

Eagles: convocation

Owls: parliament (I would love to see a parliament of owls but I don’t really think they hang out together too much).

Crows: murder (This may be a bit unjust but still amusing).

Grackles: plague (We have definitely been plagued with these at our bird feeders).

plague of grackles

But what if you see a group of birds that are a mixed bag of bird types? Is there a correct nomenclature for that? Perhaps “bunch of birds” would do just fine in such cases.

Nuthatch trying to get in a party (or charm) of finches who have a chickadee as their bouncer.

As I mentioned, the naming of groups of birds is only one part of these fascinating collections or terms of venery. We also have a month of Sundays, a mountain of debt, a rash of dermatologists, a cackle of hyenas, a mass of priests, and (one of my personal favorites) a prophet ( or profit) of televangelists.

So, if you want to make sure you are calling all groups by their proper term of venery, check out Lipton’s book though you may be accused of telling a pack of lies if you try to open such a can of worms.

Bird Watching: Beyond Quarantine

Much has been written about the hobbies people have started while in quarantine– everything from raising chickens to baking to bringing home a new puppy. Few of these hobbies are anything new and maybe some of us would have started them at some point in our lives anyway. We just needed a nudge to make us use our imaginations That many people will continue with these hobbies–finding a new joy or way of entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen–is one of the pluses of being forced to entertain ourselves. Much like when our parents told us to go outside and play, we found we could actually find something new thing to do without someone giving us a script.

male and female American goldfinch

Whether because of the enforced quarantine or because my kids are mostly grown and out of the house, I have been baking more (with some success and not a few disasters), and also have picked up birdwatching as a daily obsession. Last summer I bought a pair of binoculars and a North Carolina birdbook and began observing more closely all those feathered creatures around me. I could recognize a robin and a cardinal; knew the difference between a bluebird and a bluejay; but who knew there were several types of woodpeckers living nearby? And why had I never seen a goldfinch (which according to my birdbook is fairly common)? How could I have missed such a bright yellow color?

Male & Female Cardinals

Besides gazing with my binoculars and snapping some pictures, I’ve also been enjoying a few books (of course!) concerning birdwatching. I recently finished A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, a charming work of fiction that had me googling different birds (in Kenya) as two men had a contest on who could identify the most birds in a certain period. The winner would be able to ask a certain lady to a dance. I’m now reading a memoir, Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Long before Covid, Zarankin discovered birdwatching in the midst of some other life-changing events. Though at first reluctant to align herself with this strange group of people who all seem to wear shirts decorated with birds as well as multi-pocketed vests and have an abnormal interest in the various optics of binoculars, Zarankin soon enough found herself enthralled with learning about the birds around her and what they could teach her about herself and her own migratory habits.

In my own backyard, we have several trees, but there is also an empty lot next door, our own little forest. But, as progress would have it, the lot has been sold and now trees are coming down. Trees which surely house some of these birds I’ve been watching and feeding. Yes, I know. I’m living in a house on land that also once held a small forest, and I go to stores where a forest along with its birds and other animals used to live, so I’m trying not to be hypocritical here. But I have learned a few things both in my birdwatching and hearing the crunch and crash of trees. I’m learning to be more observant of my surroundings and more aware of the details in God’s creation. After all, they’re not my birds or trees; they are His.

I’ve also enjoyed observing the response of these birds as parts of their world comes crashing in. At first, they were quiet and out of sight, but soon, even with a bulldozer ramming its way through, they continue to come to the feeders; first the courageous chickadees and titmice, followed by the downy woodpeckers and then even the hummingbirds. A chickadee even put up a vocal protest, chirping above the crunching of branches before he grabbed his share of seeds and flew off.

So, post quarantine, I will continue to watch and observe the birds around me, and I will even try another new baking project.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Jesus in Matthew 6:26-27)

male downy woodpecker