Birding: “What’s in a name?” …What’s in Two Names?

In the birding world, a conspiracy, an asylum, or a slurp may sound like complete nonsensical ways of naming birds, but it’s not. Rather than being utter prattle, these names are actually linked to specific sets of birds and touch upon an interesting phenomena in the English language, which lexicographers call the “collective noun.” Many flora and fauna species have unique collective nouns which allude to an interesting characteristic that species holds. For instance “a mural,” refers to a group of Painted Buntings and indicates the collage of colors evident in a multitude of these birds. Additionally, “an asylum of loons” refers to the eerie and almost insane call of the Common Loon. Some refer to anthropocentric notions of the species, for instance “a wisdom,” alludes to a collection of owls. While collective nouns are fun to know, they also provide mental cues to background information with regard to the species. Let’s examine a rather well known collective noun: a Murder of Crows. Thanks to Mr. Hitchcock, we are all quite familiar with the slight tinge of the macabre associated with a large group of crows. Additionally the coloration doesn’t help, but what some researchers are finding out is that crows are incredibly intelligent and capable of committing capital crimes against one another. So then a “Murder of Crows” draws on both emotional and analytic data within the brain and helps to recall different details with regard to the crow as an individual.

But what is the origin of collective nouns? The first recognized collection of these nouns can be traced back to the 15th century in the Book of St. Albans in 1486. Found in three parts: Hawing, Hunting and Heraldry, the book is most likely a compilation and reprinting of earlier works, some of which were originally written in French. The section on hunting is thought to be transcribed by Dame Juliana Barnes, a nun from the convent near Sopwell. The Book of St. Albans was a print success and quickly became quite popular. The launch and popularization of collective nouns being assigned to animal species can largely be attributed to the success of this work. While many of Dame Juliana’s collective nouns were associated with behavior such as “a parliament of rooks,” others were more poetic observations such as “an exaltation of larks.” The practice of collective nouns was largely continued by hunters and anglers, as in the 1801 work, Sports and Pastimes of England written by Joseph Strutt. As they’re usage continued and broadened, comical aspects were devised and applied to humans, as in “a drunkenship of cobblers,” “a tedium of golfers” or “an expense of consultants.” Regardless of their origins though, collective nouns are incredibly interesting and quite useful with regard to memory recall and moreover they’re even more amusing when you create your own. So enjoy your sobriquet of nouns and to see a comprehensive list of collective nouns.

The list of collective nouns is really quite broad and the best way to remember them is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall, practice. So grab the binoculars and get out there to identify some birds. While guide books are nice, if you’re a beginning birder or even an advanced avian ace going on a bird walk can always be illuminating. This time of year there are “Earfuls” of Cedar Waxwings, “Worms” of American Robins, “Braces” of Hooded Mergansers and even “Tangles” of Red Knots on Kiawah. So if you’d like to practice with one of our naturalists come out for a Back Island Birding or even a Wildlife in the Wetlands tour through the Kiawah Island Nature Program.