September 20 – A Confusion of Terms

Today’s factismal: There are more than fifty different terms for groups of birds.

If you are a typical hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you tend to count like this: one bird, two birds, three birds, many birds. Anything more than three is just “many”, simply because that’s all that you need to know. But, if you are a typical smarty-pants hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you don’t want to keep saying many. (“I saw many geese. I saw many crows. I saw many people saying many.”) So you’ll come up with a term to use instead; your English teacher would tell you that the term you use is called a collective noun. And it turns out that English is rife with collective nouns for the many different types of birds; there are at least 58 different terms!

They include:
A band of jays
A bevy of quail
A bouquet of pheasants
A brood of hens
A building of rooks
A cast of hawks
A cauldron of raptors
A charm of finches
A chattering of starlings
A clamor of rooks
A colony of penguins
A company of parrots
A congress of ravens
A congregation of plovers
A convocation of eagles
A cover of coots
A covey of partridges
A deceit of lapwings
A descent of woodpeckers
A dissimulation of herons
A dole of doves
An exaltation of larks
A fall of woodcocks
A flight of cormorants
A flock of swifts
A flush of mallards
A herd of cranes
A host of sparrows
A kettle of nighthawks
A knob of widgeons
A murmuration of starlings
A murder of crows
A muster of storks
A nye of pheasants
An ostentation of peacocks
A pack of grouse
A paddling of ducks on the lake
A parliament of owls
A party of jays
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A raft of ducks
A rafter of turkeys
A run of poultry
A siege of bitterns
A skein of geese in flight
A gaggle of geese on the ground
A sord of mallards
A spring of teal
A team of ducks in flight
A tidings of magpies
A trip of dotterel
An unkindness of ravens
A walk of snipe
A watch of nightingales
A wedge of swans
A whiteness of swans
A wisp of snipe

A whiteness of swans, swimming (My camera)

A whiteness of swans, swimming
(My camera)

As you can tell from the list, many of the names come from the characteristics of the birds (e.g., the wedge shape that a group of swans makes in flight or how ducks get around the pond). And others are borrowings from old English and other languages. But they are all fun to use. So the next time you see a bunch of birds, don’t say “I saw many starlings”; amaze your friends and confuse your enemies by saying “I saw a murmuration of starlings”.

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge (My camera)

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge
(My camera)

And if you are the sort of person who would say “I saw a watch of nightingales”, then why not wing over to BeakGeek, where you’ll be among birds of a feather? You can enter information about any birds you see and get information about birds that other people see, all in real time:
http://www.scistarter.com/project/263-BeakGeek

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