Recently I posted a bird photo on Facebook and referred to a "kettle of Black Vultures" and several months ago referred in a column to a "raft of Snow Geese." Both terms prompted questions from readers about the use of such words to describe groups of birds, with one person even congratulating me on my inventiveness in coining the "raft" description.
But in fact I coined nothing. Such descriptive phrases are examples of a tradition dating to 14th and 15th Century England and France, where the knowledge and use of "terms of venery" to describe animal groups was seen as a sign of erudition in certain circles. Many of these terms were so esoteric that they never made it into common use, but others stuck. Thus we still have a "pride of lions" and a "gaggle of geese."
"Venery" comes from a Latin word for hunting (there is another meaning for "venery" that involves sexual pleasure that derives from a different Latin word). The practice of producing inventive group names for animals usually bases those names on an animal's looks or behavior -- a "crash of rhinoceros," for instance, or a "scourge of mosquitoes."
But perhaps no other family in the animal kingdom has more creative and often entertaining group names than birds.
Take, for instance, the Raven. In a group, one term for them is "an unkindness of ravens." But that is mild compared to the group name for a cousin of the Raven -- a "murder of crows."
Sometimes what prompts a group name is obvious. For instance, anyone who has ever seen a cormorant eat a fish it just caught can understand the phrase, "a gulp of cormorants."
However, not all group names for birds are so libelous. Consider "an exaltation of larks," I presume for the beauty of the songs of these birds. And the loveliness of Goldfinches and hummingbirds prompted them to be called a "charm of finches" and a "charm of hummingbirds."
Some group names are just wordplay, such as the phrase "an illusion of Merlins."
Some names can be used for a variety of species, and sometimes the names are different for birds on land or in the water or in the air. For instance, when birds form a tight formation floating in the water, the group is often called a "raft." But the same birds flying in formation can be called a "flight."
One of my favorites involves the Brown Pelican. When they form their V-shaped groups that cruise over the water in search of a school of fish (there we go again), they can be called a "squadron of pelicans."
Last year Alabama Ornithological Society members were ecstatic over seeing a really rare bird for Alabama -- a Red Phalarope -- at Dauphin Island. One obvious behavior of this little beauty was that it often swam in a tight circle in shallow water, probably to stir up food. Having seen that behavior, it is not surprising that groups of phalaropes have been called swirls, twirls, whirls, or even whirlagigs.
I mentioned earlier the use of the word "kettle" to describe birds flying in a circle, often catching a ride on a thermal -- a column of rising, warm air. But some of those same birds have other names on the ground -- a "wake of vultures," for instance. It's so easy to imagine that 10 or 12 of these somber-looking birds perched in a dead tree are attending a wake.
I've never studied these group names well enough to know which ones date to the 15th Century and which have been coined more recently. But many of them have become part of the language of birding, and some our everyday language as well. And even though using them too frequently can sound pretentious, if not overused they can be fun.
My photos this week are from a road trip through Lowndes, Dallas and Marengo counties a few days ago. Photo highlights of the trip were Bald Eagles (adult and juvenile) and a Loggerhead Shrike in Dallas County, Redhead ducks in Lowndes, and an Osprey flying in the above-mentioned kettle of Black Vultures as well as a Belted Kingfisher in Marengo. (See photo gallery.)
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.
For details, go to: www.alapark.com/Lakepoint-Fins-Feathers-Flowers
-- An update on the live Berry College, Ga., Eagle Cams. We have two hatchlings, still just balls of fluff mostly tucked under one of the parents but viewable at feeding time. See it at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including its Beginner Bird Walk in partnership with the Birmingham Zoo. The Feb. 18 field trip will be 8–10 a.m. Meet at the Children's Zoo entrance gate. Members of the Birmingham Audubon Society and Birmingham Zoo bird curators will serve as expert guides to help with bird identification. The society's Audubon Teaches Nature programs are ongoing at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Geology and Paleontology in Alabama: a Treasure Underfoot. The speaker will be Dana Ehret. The program will be Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details on the Beginner Bird Walk and Audubon Teaches Nature and other programs, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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