Clover’s Literary Corner: Colorful Collectives

A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell

One afternoon last fall, I looked out my car window to see a huge flock of geese winging southward, so high they were barely visible in the graying dusk. There were 50-100 of them, flying not in the typical chevron formation, but in a long, straight line that went on and on. Awed by their magnificence, I opened my window and turned down the car radio to try and hear their beautiful wild call, but they were so high I could barely hear a distant honk or two. I caught my breath as I marveled at their grace, their courage, and their high level of organization. Then I began to wonder: was it a flock? A bevy? Or a swarm? 

You’ve probably heard of a swarm of bees or a nest of vipers, but have you heard of a charm of goldfinches, or a murder of crows? Since before the Middle Ages—when hunting was a key form of sustenance—people have coined colorful collective nouns to describe gatherings of animals, birds, and even fish—for example, a pod of dolphins. Often these nouns are derived from the behavior of the animals themselves, or from mythological associations. In A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings (2016), Matt Sewell researches some of the most unusual of these and explains how they came to be, illustrated by his whimsical watercolor illustrations. His introductory declaration that “we as humans are romantic poets at heart” highlights the originality of these descriptive terms. His primary source was the 1486 hunting guide, The Boke of Seynt Albans by Englishman Julyan Berners.

Right off the bat, this book provided the answer to my question. While geese form a gaggle when waddling along the ground, I had been privileged to observe a skein of geese, which seems a perfect name for their long string formation. However, Sewell informs us that in Old French, “skein” meant a V formation, in which geese typically fly. Meanwhile, summer has arrived, I am pleased to behold a flutter of butterflies dancing above my wildflower meadow. I sometimes welcome a lounge of lizards basking in the sun of my patio.

As you are hiking around these parts—on the mountain trail at Mint Springs, for example—you might well encounter a sleuth of bears. This name is a reference to the sleuth hound, or bloodhound, who was used to track bears in merry olde England—where they have now been hunted to extinction. The origin of a plague of rats is not too difficult to imagine, with the Black (bubonic) Plague, carried by rats and their fleas, wiping out almost a third of the European population in the mid-1300s.  The obstinacy of buffalo is similarly apt if you’ve ever been stopped by a bison jam in Yellowstone National Park!

In the fields of Highland County, you might find a down of hares (the hare being a larger and longer-eared relative of the everyday rabbit), so named because “down” was a common name for a field, or stretch of open, uncultivated land with gently rolling hills (such as the Berkshire Downs or the Sussex Downs) in early British English—a fact which gave rise to the title of Richard Adams’ 1972 classic Watership Down. But such a sighting would be rare, since the snowshoe hare is now endangered in Virginia. Although generally solitary, during mating season a large group of hares might cover a good deal of a down. 

Many of the most poetic of these collective nouns refer to birds, whom we especially enjoy at this time of year. A charm of goldfinches will ring true if you’ve ever enjoyed a visit to your birdfeeder by a merry band of these chirping, golden birds. A line from the Rodgers & Hammerstein song “Oklahoma” confirms the origin of a kettle of hawks: “Ev’ry night my honey lamb and I / sit alone and talk, and watch a hawk / makin’ lazy circles in the sky.” Hawks often fly in circles, like the swirl of boiling water in a kettle, to catch the winds. A parliament of owls refers to their mythological wisdom. Usually solitary, occasionally population “irruptions” of owls occur because of changes in their food source, with hundreds of them roosting in the trees.

A murmuration of starlings is one of the most memorable of these descriptive group names. “If you’re lucky enough to have watched it, it’s a sight you’ll likely never forget: hundreds of thousands of starlings covering the sky, undulating, shifting, forming giant fluid patterns that morph from second to second,” commented Danish photographer Soren Solkaer on NPR as he was interviewed about his 2020 book Black Sun, a collection of his photographs of these astonishing phenomena—which occur in spring and fall prior to migration—made in various countries over many years. “The technical name is a murmuration. But in Denmark, where the birds fly above the northern stretches of the Wadden Sea, it’s called the Black Sun.” He continues in his book, “In an incredible show of collaboration and performance skills… the starlings move as one unified organism that vigorously opposes any outside threat.” Perhaps the distant sound of their beating wings, or their multiple chirpings as they perform this “black sun ballet,” sounds like a murmur.

The lark’s joyful morning song has long made it a symbol of spiritual awakening in various religions, and an exaltation of larks derives from this association. “Through the poetry, classical music, and cultural landmark literature they have inspired,” Sewell explains—notably Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792-1822) rapturous “Ode to a Skylark”—“skylarks have become totems of beatific peace, of a bucolic calmness we should strive toward (sic).” There are nearly 100 varieties of these melodious birds around the world, but the horned lark is the only one common to North America. In contrast, a murder of crows is named for these black, noisy birds’ long association with witchcraft and death. The stars of Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963)—along with ravens, seagulls, and sparrows—the highly intelligent carrion crow has been feared by man since ancient times. An unkindness of ravens is not much more complimentary. 

But my favorite collective noun, because so appropriate, is a cloud of bats. At dusk here in Crozet, backyards become host to flotillas of these high-flying acrobats, sailing black against the pink sunset sky, squeaking to exercise the echolocation they use to navigate. They fly at night with their mouths open to catch as many bugs as possible. Goodbye, mosquitoes! A quarrel of sparrows will seem familiar if you’ve ever heard a tree full of them chattering outside your window. And last but not least, a deceit of lapwings is named for their erratic flight pattern, purposely designed to disorient predators and discourage aerial attacks from hawks and other raptors.

If we could come up with our own collective nouns, I might suggest a drift of fireflies, a swoop of swallows, or a squabble of hummingbirds, who mercilessly bully each other at my feeder. For collective nouns used with water animals, you’ll need to read the book—but on your beach vacation this summer, I hope you do not encounter a shiver of sharks! 


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