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).
chickadees: banditry (This is seems oddly appropriate).
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.
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).
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.
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.