A number of broad terms are commonly used to describe groups of birds such as a ‘flock’ (on the ground) or a ‘flight’ (in the air). There are also general words for gatherings of birds of a particular type. For example, a congregation of game birds such as partridges or grouse is often known as a covey, a flight of wildfowl as a skein, and a gathering of nesting seabirds is often called a colony.
However, over the centuries, poets, wordsmiths, and those given to the creative use of English have coined appealing and evocative terms to describe assemblages of certain specific birds. Although many are now rarely used in practice, they are fun things to know and essential if you like quizzes!
Many of these playful words have origins dating back centuries. A lot were described by the monk, John Lydgate (born c.1370) who could be a little playful, so we don’t entirely know whether all these words were genuinely in use at the time he recorded them. For example he offers the word ‘gaggle’ to refer to a gathering of both geese and women (!), and uses the word ‘congregation’ to describe a group of plovers even though he knew the Church didn’t like them. (Lapwings were the commonest birds described as plovers and the Church labelled them as treacherous or deceitful because they feigned injury when threatened.)
Many of Lydgate’s observations are also found in The Book of Saint Albans attributed to Juliana Berners (b. 1388) and published in 1486. This became the main means of popularising them, although it is not known if either author copied the other.
The traditional, and accepted, collective nouns from these two sources include the following:
Some of these collective nouns seem to evoke the noise made by gatherings of particular species: a mass of starlings does sound rather like a restless audience waiting for a performance; the collective twittering of a flock of goldfinches is a distinctly charming sound.
Other collective nouns reflect the behaviour, or perceived behaviour, of a bird. Owls are thought of as intelligent birds, so their assembling together might almost suggest some sort of wise council or conference; teals are small ducks that seem to leap or spring into the air when they take off – something which is especially impressive en masse.
A ‘murder’ of crows recalls the potentially sinister overtones of such a gathering, given this bird’s customary association with death or evil. The unusual collective noun for ravens deserves some special mention. The word ‘unkindness’ is possibly connected with ravens driving away or even killing other birds, their pecking out the eyes of the dead, and an age-old myth that ravens were cruel to their own young.
There have been many, more modern, attempts to extend this traditional list of collective nouns, often by using puns on birds’ names or evoking the sound made by groups of particular birds. These ideas have included:
Although relatively recent creations like these seem as ingenious and appropriate as many of the longer-standing varieties, they do not seem to have been widely accepted and so are not recognised by authorities such as the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet these words are occasionally used and inventing new ones is fun, so why not have a go yourself?