Flocks of birds: ‘a murder of crows’ and other terms of venery

As I’m writing this on an early autumn evening, I can see a large group of crows flying over the nearby trees. With a golden sunset as a backdrop, it’s a stunning sight, and one I get to enjoy a lot this time of year.

Inspired by that scene, in this post I’d like to discuss English words used for groups of birds, which is a surprisingly interesting segment of vocabulary. While we could describe almost any large group of birds simply as a flock, there are many special collective nouns that go with specific species.

These unusual expressions mostly come from the medieval and early modern terms of venery, a kind of hunters’ slang that can sound outright bizarre, but sometimes it also makes perfect sense. I’ll list a few of my favourite ones, and at the end of the post you’ll find the links to a lot more vocabulary of this sort.

a chatter

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Humans are not the only ones who like to chatter. Budgerigars (parakeets in American English) do it too, especially when they feel happy and content. A group of them is thus called a chatter.

a congregation

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This collective noun is applied to different kinds of birds, including eagles. One would expect a wider use of this word, as its Latin root, the word grex, literally means ‘a flock’. Speaking of eagles, other collective nouns used for them are a convocation and a congress. Unsurprising, all three words carry a certain gravitas.

a dance

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A flock of cranes is known as a dance, possibly because of elaborate dances they perform during mating season.

a flamboyance

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If you’ve ever seen a flamingo, this one will make sense – they are rather flamboyant, aren’t they?

a herd

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Typically used for cattle, a herd is applied to several different kinds of birds, as well. Among them are cranes and swans, although the latter also go with much more poetic sounding nouns – a ballet and a lamentation

a murder

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A personal favourite, a flock of crows is a murder. There are different explanations for the origins of this term, steeped in folklore and local beliefs, but the term probably has to do with this bird’s eating habits.

a pandaemonium

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I suppose all birds can be hellishly noisy under certain circumstances, but this collective noun is used specifically for parrots. 

a parliament

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Yes, birds also have parliaments, if you didn’t know! Well, at least one species does, the wisest one – the owls. Apart from a parliament, other collective nouns for a group of owls are a wisdom and a study.

an unkindness

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Now, which birds do you think have deserved this term? It happens to be one of my favourites, ravens. According to one explanation, it’s because they sometimes throw out their young from the nest before they are strong and capable enough to fight for themselves, which appears cruel and unkind to human observers. The other two collective nouns connected with ravens are equally unflattering: a treachery and a conspiracy.

a wake

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In the human world, a wake is a ceremony held before a funeral, during which family and close friends watch over the body of a deceased person. The same word is used for a group of vultures, but also smaller birds who feast on dead animals, such as buzzards. A curious and morbid connection, but there it is.

Some of the other collective nouns used for flocks of certain birds are a band, a troubling, a prayer, a mob, a parcel, an omniscience, a colony, a cloud, a festival, and many others. If and when you decide to go into the nitty-gritty of ornithology or bird watching, make use of the additional resources listed below.

Collective Nouns for Birds

Collective Nouns for Animals

List of animal names (look at the column labeled ‘collective noun’)

No, It’s Not Actually a Murder of Crows (a critical look at the use of the terms of venery)

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