Thursday, March 14, 2013

Birds by the Numbers

My wife’s elderly aunt clips newspaper articles about birds and sends them to me, sooner or later. One arrived with a little note attached: “This fell out of my dictionary.” So I don’t know when or where it is from. But it opened an interesting subject - how do we refer to numbers of birds?

 “A Gaggle of Geese” describes the goose tendency
 to “talk” constantly with one another when in flight.
The newspaper clipping began with: “many of us know that it’s truly bad form when among birders to blurt out, ‘Oh, look at that big bunch of crows!’ ‘It’s a murder of crows!’ a prism of bonafide birders will promptly advise you with blood in their eyes. And so, with an unkindness of ravens or a parliament of owls or a pitying of turtle-doves. There’s a way to speak of groups of things and you’d better get them right.”

I read this and I thought - Well, okay, maybe I’m not the bonafide birder I thought I was, because most of these terms were only vaguely familiar to me.

However, there are other phrases for numbers of birds with which I have long been familiar: a kettle of hawks, a gaggle of geese, a raft of ducks.

Where these familiar phrases (familiar to me) came from was not difficult to figure out. “A kettle of hawks” describes hawks rising on warm thermals, much as bubbles might rise to the surface in a boiling kettle of water. “Gaggle” is what a bunch of geese sound like. A large number of ducks riding the ocean waves look like a rudderless raft rising and falling. A “raft” can also refer to a large collection of something, such as a large collection of ducks.

"A Murder of Crows"
But where does the term “a murder of crows” come from? Apparently the term derives from the persistent folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact may be that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory - or much more commonly, that they will feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries, all places where crows scavenged on human remains. These associations with places of death may also account for “the unkindness of ravens.” The latter phrase may also relate to the image of the raven used by Danish Vikings on their flags - “unkindness” being a characteristic of these marauding bands.

Parliament is a gathering for talk and discussion. I remember one summer evening on Sunset Lake listening to a “parliament” of Barred Owls conversing back and forth. And the voice of the dove is often mournful (Mourning Dove) and plaintive - hence “a pitying of turtle-doves.”

My curiosity peaked, I did some further research. There are a few terms that can be applied to many different groups of birds: colony, company, flock, parliament, party. There are other group terms that  are standard and likely recognizable to many people, even non-birders: a bevy of quail, a bouquet of pheasants, a covey of partridges (or grouse or quail), a skein of geese.

There are terms which use to be used, but are hardly ever heard anymore: a congregation of plovers, a dole of doves, a paddling of ducks. My source suggested that “a host of sparrows” falls into this category, but I find myself using “host” for sparrows and many other species. That same source also cites “a fall of woodcock” as an obsolete term. Come Spring, I will begin a revival of “a fall of woodcock,” for that is an apt description of how the woodcock’s display flight concludes - after circling and twittering overhead, he suddenly drops, or falls, out of the night sky as he returns to his dance floor.

Many of these terms are listed in James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks (1991), which is based on old sources. The terms evolved during the Middle Ages when the sophisticated art of hunting demanded an equally sophisticated vocabulary. In addition to a passion for sport, the nobles also delighted in the play of words.  There were manuscript lists of group names in the 15th century, and these lists appeared in some of the first books printed in England.

 “A Kettle of Hawks” - Broad-winged Hawks
 circle on rising thermals over Putney Mountain.
The best source for investigating the histories of English words is the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, even the OED is not always reliable. The word "kettle" (as both a noun and a verb) has been used by hawk watchers for many generations, and it has often appeared in print; the OED editors obviously are not birders, since they do not make any reference to “a kettle of hawks.”

“A Stew of Oystercatchers” may have been coined
 by birders peering too long through their binoculars
In my search for terms to express bird numbers, I came across many which appear to be modern coinages. The nature of some of these coinages leads me to conclude that some birders have been spending too much time peering through their binoculars. Consider: a herd of cowbirds, a stew of oystercatchers, a pint of bitterns, an avalanche of Snow Geese, a jar of nuthatches, a suite of nutcrackers, an earful of waxwings, a grain of sanderlings, a gallup of redpolls, and a college of cardinals. Those are just a few.

So, what do we make of all of this? Not much. If you want to refer to those geese you saw as a bunch, rather than a gaggle, that’s okay. If you like pointing toward those hawks that are “flying in a big circle” rather than kettling, who am I to complain? But as far as I’m concerned those hundred big black birds rising out of their rousting pines are going to be “a murder of crows,” because at the very least, they can make a murderous noise when they want.

"A Raft of Ducks"
And let me know when you see the first Red-winged Blackbird - even if it’s just one. Because that will mean Spring is coming and I can finally get out of these four walls. I’m going a little crazy. I need a harold of robins!

Good birding!

Chris Petrak
Tails of Birding


  1. My favorite is a "Charm of Hummingbirds"
    I smile when I hear all the grouping terms. They're fun to know:)

  2. Very informative! I have heard of some of these collective nouns, but not all of them. And it's fun to know the history behind a "murder" of crows!

  3. Excellent informative post! Very interesting topic.