Why use the term flock when there are so many wonderful historic terms to describe gatherings of bird species?
During these quiet, sultry days of late summer there tends to be a lull in bird activity. The song and matchmaking of spring is long gone; most summer migrants have left for home while it is too early for visiting winter fowl and waders.
For me, it is a time to take stock of the birds that have gone and those still to come.
My summer reading this year has included research into some of the collective names we give to groups of birds. These days we tend to call a gathering of one species of bird a flock, but in times past a multitude of terms were invented to describe avian assemblies.
Many of these terms come from medieval publications knowns as BOOKS OF COURTESY. These were handbooks for young noblemen hunters and countrymen designed to equip them with the language to describe the wildlife they saw around them. And because they were written down, historians have been able to capture them and explain the origin of these words.
You may be familiar with terms like a murmuration of starlings or a flight of swallows, which are still widely used today; others are less well known and great fun for their colourful use of language and pretentiousness.
This is all explained in an absorbing little book called ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ by Chloe Rhodes. We may not have ravens here (although a few are starting to return to East Anglia) but there are other corvids a-plenty on the water meadows.
Back in the 15th century, a slightly pompous aristocrat may have referred to a flock of crows as a murder of crows. With their dark feathers and jet-black eyes, crows have always been connected to death and, in more superstitious times, were believed to be messengers of the devil or witches in disguise.
Their habit of scavenging would have added to their sinister reputation as they gathered in numbers over battlefields and near carcasses of dead animals.
Another corvid, the magpie, was imbued with prophetic power – and the number of birds that appeared in a flock was thought to determine whether you would experience good or bad luck. We are all familiar with the rhyme ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy…’ and it is no surprise then, that a group of these splendid looking birds was labelled a tiding of magpies.
One of my favourite terms is a parliament of rooks, another expression originating from these medieval lists. Listen to the cacophony as rooks build their nests in spring on the Croft or congregate at dusk in the skies over Sudbury as they make their way to their rookeries – it is not a huge leap of the imagination to liken this racket to the discordant clamour of MPs arguing in the chamber.
Finches, Geese and Mallards
Another term I particularly like from this period is a charm of goldfinches: to see these wonderfully coloured birds with red heads in a great number is a thing of beauty. But the term is misleading.
In medieval times, charm (or chirm) had a different meaning. It meant simply to chirp or make a noise, very apt for the scratchy twitter of finches in unison.
We don’t have that many geese pass the meadows but just down the road, Canada geese can be seen flying to and from Cornard Mere. On the ground the collective term for geese is a gaggle but in the air it is a skein of geese.
The word skein has been in use since 1400 and is a shortening of the old French word ‘escaigne’ which meant a hank of yarn. A hank or skein of yarn is a length that has been folded back in on itself in a shape similar to the V-formation that geese fly in. This V-shape is vital for geese flying longer distances, enabling birds at the back to rest as they ride on the updrafts created by the wings of the birds up front.
Amidst all this wordplay, it is important to remember that many of these terms were used by hunters to describe birds’ behaviour when disturbed. This explains the term a sord of mallards – an expression to describe how this most common of ducks act when they are flushed from their hiding place. Sord is derived from ‘soudre’, the old French word meaning ‘to spring’.
There are many more terms to look into: an exultation of larks, a siege of herons and even a deceit of lapwings. But explanations of these terms will have to wait for another day because with page space at a premium, I have run out of words…..
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity