See also part two.
Birds have long held a special place in the imagination of humans. How many of us have seen birds in flight and never wondered what it would be like to fly? We associate flight, and therefore birds, with freedom. Flying free. Free as a bird.
We use birds to describe character traits in our fellow humans. Someone might be an odd bird or a funny duck, a chicken or a pigeon. If someone is aggressive we might call them a hawk, if they’re conciliatory, a dove. It should come as no surprise that we also use human-centered language when talking about birds.
Collective nouns are used to describe groups of similar things. We talk about a pod of orcas, a bank of elevators or a herd of cows. Most of the collective nouns are so commonplace that they are standard parts of the language. They are more likely to be used than even the most general term, group. We don’t often refer to a herd of cows as a group of cows, or a pride of lions as a group of lions.
Collective nouns for groups of animals are called “terms of venery” if they are specific to the kind of animal, such as pride for lions. You don’t get a pride of dogs or gnus. Venery is defined in the Collaborative International Dictionary of English as the art, act or practice of hunting. The practice of using terms of venery was begun by English hunting gentlemen at least as far back as the 1400s. It was part of their education and was used to set themselves apart from everyone who wasn’t an educated gentleman.
Some of the most interesting collective nouns belong to birds. Swans get a lot of attention here. They come in herds, bevies, banks, drifts and squadrons, as well as the more romantic ballet of swans. My favorite for the big white birds is a grace of swans.
On the ground there is a gaggle of geese. Flying, a skein. Rising on an updraft of warm air, you’ll see a kettle of hawks. Swimming on the pond, a paddle of ducks. Chattering in the rainforest, a prattle of parrots. There will be a stand of flamingos, a mustering of storks and a wake of buzzards.
Owls get some respect. A group of them is called a parliament. Attractive birds get flattered, as in a radiance of cardinals. Being beautiful singers, here’s an exaltation of larks.
The corvids are singled out for slander. For crows it’s a mob of crows or even a murder of crows. Ravens also come in murders but there is also a conspiracy of ravens and an unkindness of ravens. Magpies are associated with omens and portents so we call a group of them a tiding of magpies.
And there you have it, a whole flock of collective nouns.