Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Murder of Fish Crows?

I posted a slightly modified version of this post about my sighting of a large aggregation of Fish Crows to the WV-Bird listserv yesterday afternoon. In response, Paul Thorn offered this comment:
It seems that many of these terms do indeed go back at least several hundred years, and can be found in written accounts between the 13th and 15th Centuries. Others can only be found in literary sources beginning with the 18th or 19th Centuries, although they might possibly have been in use earlier. The genuine ones seem to have originated mostly as hunters' vernacular, and so were actually used, if not necessarily by everyone. Many others are described as "fanciful," meaning that they probably were used metaphorically or poetically, but not in common parlance, while others have the appearance of having been invented by the very sources that first reported them, perhaps as a sort of literary joke, albeit one that has gained an air of credibility from age.
Many terms, which tend to vary considerably from list to list, are of recent vintage and should be considered spurious. They range from the subtle and humorous to the crude and sophomoric; anyone with doubts about a particular term would be well-advised to check a dictionary before repeating it seriously.
It seems that many of these terms do indeed go back at least several hundred years, and can be found in written accounts between the 13th and 15th Centuries. Others can only be found in literary sources beginning with the 18th or 19th Centuries, although they might possibly have been in use earlier. The genuine ones seem to have originated mostly as hunters' vernacular, and so were actually used, if not necessarily by everyone. Many others are described as "fanciful," meaning that they probably were used metaphorically or poetically, but not in common parlance, while others have the appearance of having been invented by the very sources that first reported them, perhaps as a sort of literary joke, albeit one that has gained an air of credibility from age.
Many terms, which tend to vary considerably from list to list, are of recent vintage and should be considered spurious. They range from the subtle and humorous to the crude and sophomoric; anyone with doubts about a particular term would be well-advised to check a dictionary before repeating it seriously.
Personally I like to refer to a "wake" of vultures, but only tongue-in-cheek. The term "murder" to describe a group of crows (or ravens, for that matter), however widespread, has no linguistic justification. It's fanciful at best, and presumably metaphorical. But it's not a valid ornithological term. There's nothing wrong with using it, as long as one appreciates and respects that distinction. This isn't meant as a response to a particular message, and it certainly isn't meant as a criticism; just a musing about the origins of fanciful names that seemed timely. There's no reason not to use these terms, or even coin new ones, if they show some sort of logic or wit, as long as nobody pretends that they're genuine or valid descriptions.
Because the birds in the recent message were fish crows, I suggest that they ought to travel in "schools" rather than "murders."
I like that suggestion!

And Paul’s comment elicited this colorful response and additional list of imaginative (and downright silly) collective nouns for birds from Bob Burrell:

The terms "Crude and Sophomoric" resonated loudly within me and gave me pause to addend with the following collective nouns used to refer to groups of well known birds:

A worm of robins
A paddling of ducks
A zipper of flycatchers
A Dan of quail
A cord of wood thrushes
A litter of catbirds
A string of kites
An asylum of loons
A rattle of kingfishers
A heraldry of kingbirds
A college of cardinals
A race of swifts
A ball of waxwings
A scoop of pelicans
A gulp of swallows
A hanky of mourning doves
A donkey of pintails
A splattering of starlings
A knee-slapper of laughing gulls
A barber of redpolls
Bob has a great sense of humor!

Just for the record, my use of the term "murder" to describe the flock of Fish Crows that I saw was merely a tongue-in-cheek effort to grab the attention of readers. I guess it worked!

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