Sunday, September 20, 2015

What's In A Name?

Many people know that a group of birds can be called either a flock or colony, but little do they know you can also call a group of geese a gaggle, or a group of loons an asylum.  Birds by themselves are called by their species name, but when you get a group of them together we like to refer to them as a whole.
The origin of many collective nouns for animals can be traced back to the 15th century to one of the first published books, The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms (also known as The Book of Saint Albans) by Dame Juliana Barnes (1486).

It is unknown if Barnes coined these terms herself, or rather recorded the terms that were considered proper at the time.  The section on hunting contains the list of special collective nouns for animals, which are rarely used today, with some exceptions that have been resurrected in the last 100 years or so.

A murmuration of Starlings (photo: wikipedia)

The animal group names typically refer to a particular behavior the animals have when they are gathered together.  A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance for their brightly colored feathers and elaborate/showy display when walking together.  A group of starlings is called a murmuration (murmur: a low/indistinct, continuous sound) for their highly social roosting behavior that can number in the thousands. 

A group of raptors can be called either a cauldron or kettle due to the tendency of birds circling in a thermal updraft, to communicate, gain altitude to help their daily movements, and conserve strength for either upcoming hunting or migration.  A group of falcons or hawks can be called a cast (falconers term for flying multiple birds together), while a group of eagles is called a convocation (a large formal assembly), and a group of owls is called a parliament (a discussion; a group of people who meet to discuss matters of state).

While some of the group names are silly (a gulp of cormorants) some have more serious origins (like a murder of crows).  Most of these terms are rarely used today, even in science, but they embody our linguistic ingenuity and affinity for nature and its' beauty.

Submitted by William (Derek) Oberbeck III, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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