Those of us who swarm to birds assign names to bunches of them; a covey of quail, a gaggle of geese, a colony of gulls. We like our wildlife prosperous, so it pleases us to see them amassed in large, healthy numbers.
But there are so many terms for flocking birds that it’s tough to keep them sorted out. One heron is in search of company. Two herons are a pair, but three herons? That’s a rookery. Or a siege. Or a sedge. A collection of pheasants can be called a bouquet when flushed, or a nest, nye or nide when on the ground.
You’ve heard of an exaltation of larks, but have you ever addressed a wisp of snipe or a cover of coots?
The Oxford English Dictionary is concerned with keeping the lid on birdy terminology. It is the self-proclaimed law and order when it comes to bird group names. For example, it lists a flight of swallows as standard usage, but an unkindness of ravens as obsolete. Terms like murmuration of starlings, congregation of plovers, and spring of teal, were formerly considered archaic, but have been recently revived by popular employment.
Oddly, though, the dictionary does not recognize a murder of crows, a kettle of hawks or a rafter of turkeys.
The fact is that common usage is the real boss. If, in the natural course of dinner conversation, we delineate parliaments of owls and convocations of eagles, it shall be so. And what about a palette of tanagers, a burst of buntings or a harvest of orioles? During the month of May, we speak wistfully of warbler waves, so we would be forgiven for calling them a blessing — they come from so far away, at such a risk, bestowing color and song. I’ve known a verbiage of vireos, a tangle of knots, an aria of thrushes. Who hasn’t experienced a subdivision of house sparrows or a ruddiness of robins?
You see how easy it is to get carried away with the naming game, and how entertaining. A pack of jays is a scold. A batch of bobolinks is a bubbling. A plush of martins. A charm of finches. Seems obvious enough.
In your travels, may you know a tumble of woodcocks, a giggling of loons and a big gulp of cormorants.
May you experience a string of kites, descent of woodpeckers and enough grouse to clog a complaint department.
May you get to know, in the slow, sweet time of your own association, a cast of avian characters of health and number that defy description or limit.
Many more birds to you.
Betchkal is an Eau Claire freelance writer.