A Murder of Crows, a Wake of Vultures

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I was watching a television show recently when a character referred to a “murder of crows.” That is the archaic term for what most folks would call a flock. I decided to research the origin of the term, which dates back to the 15th century, according to a word ancestry site. Originally, it was murther of crowes, the former being the middle English term that evolved into murder. Why a group of black-feathered scavengers came to be know by this homicidal appellation is less clear. The most-likely theory revolves around the eating habits of crows, which would often swoop down upon a corpse-strewn battlefield for their sustenance.

A group of ravens, cousins to crows, is called an unkindness. Ravens have longer tails and usually travel in pairs, while crows prefer large crowds. According to worldwidewords.org, the unkindness refers to a long-held belief that ravens push their babies out of the nest to fend for themselves.

The origin of these terms for groups of critters and people in English is The Book of St. Albans, first published in 1486. It was divided into three parts: hawking, hunting and heraldry, as the site explains, and is likely compiled from earlier publications likely written in French. The book became so popular that a number of printers produced copies, long before copyright laws had come into existence. One writer conjectured the book was second in popularity only to the Bible.

While these lists of names for birds and beasts have almost completely faded from popular use, they possess certain charm. One writer on the Audubon website wrote that these words — called terms of venery — are antiquated and should no longer be used. Birds are flocks, other animals are herds, and that is that.

Hold on, now. Do we really want to dispense with a parliament of rooks — another member of the crow family so named because they gather in large numbers in tall trees? Certainly we should hold on to a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese. And a venue of vultures has a certain panache to it.

These collective nouns add considerable color to our language, in my view. Herd and flock only, indeed. What about a colony of ants, a swarm of bees, or a pack of coyotes? These are commonly used.

Here are some obscure collective nouns for birds and beasts that you might wish to sprinkle into your next cocktail party conversation:

  • A clowder of cats, which is more than two felines gathered together. Its origin is Middle English, a variant of clutter, according to dictionary.com.
  • A plump of ducks can also be applied to geese and other waterfowl. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, he wrote,“A ‘plump’ of ducks rose at the same time and took the route to the north in the wake of their noisier cousins.” It is also of Middle English origin.
  • A kettle of hawks refers to a large number of these dignified creatures. A red-tailed hawk lives in our neighborhood, doing his level best to keep down the squirrel population. One site claims the term originates from flocks of hawks looking like soup boiling in a kettle.
  • A wake of vultures seems fitting for creatures that feast on road kill in East Texas. There is a novel published in 2015 by that name. Goodreads describes it as, “A rich, dark fantasy of destiny, death and the supernatural world hiding beneath the surface.”
  • A dole or dule of mourning doves, which one hears cooing most everywhere there are trees. Mourning doves provide the background music on many walks. My theory is dole is short for “doleful.”

Finally, there is a zeal of zebras, which is also the title of a coffee-table children’s book devoted to collective nouns. That might make a nice Christmas present for my grand-nieces and nephews.

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