A murmuration…

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a murmuration of starlings – where the birds swoop and swirl in amazing aerial ballet creating patterns in the sky – it’s not something you are likely to forget. But have you ever wondered why it is called a ‘murmuration’?

You were probably too enchanted by the magical sight to notice the ongoing background murmur – or murmuration – as caused by the beating of 10,000 pairs of wings at once. And that’s where the term comes from. Most of the collective nouns we use date back to the mid-15th century. But the origins of most collective bird and animal nouns are not always as straightforward as they first appear.

Some are named after specific habits, such as ‘a descent of woodpeckers’, possibly due to their penchant for dropping down from great heights onto ants or ‘a leap of leopards’ or ‘a busyness of ferrets’ while others focus on a personality trait that we believe them to possess.

For instance, the number of sinister sounding nouns for crows, such as murder, mob and horde, probably come from medieval peasants’ fears that the mean-looking birds had been sent by the Devil or were witches in disguise.

Similarly, ‘an unkindness of ravens’ could stem from an old misguided belief that the birds were not caring parents, sometimes expelling their young from their nests before they were ready.

Many bird species have more than one collective noun. As with crows, there are many terms to describe finches (charm, trembling and trimming) and geese, depending on whether they’re flying (skein, wedge, nide) or gathered on water (plump) or land (gaggle).

A book by Chloe Rhodes An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns is fascinating. In it she explains that, unlike proverbs, rhymes or homilies, many of these delightful names endure because they were recorded and published in ‘Books of Courtesy’ – handbooks designed to educate the nobility. So an early sort of ‘one upmanship’ to ensure you made it plain you belonged to the ‘right’ set, something like the Sloane Ranger speak of the 1980s perhaps!

Here are some of my favourite bird terms:

  • A wake of buzzards
  • A commotion of coots
  • A murder of crows
  • An asylum of cuckoos
  • A swatting of flycatchers
  • A prayer of godwits
  • A conspiracy of ravens
  • A parliament of rooks
  • An exultation of skylarks
  • A murmuration of starlings
  • A chime of wrens
  • A booby of nuthatches
  • A quilt of eiders
  • A mischief of magpies
  • A wisdom of owls
  • A committee of terns
  • A descent of woodpeckers
  • A scold of jays
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A fall of woodcock
  • A deceit of lapwings
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