Many of us owe our interest in nature to books or films we experienced as children. Some of the information may have been rooted in someone’s fertile imagination, but at least it got us thinking about nature.
Animal group names
The first lessons were simply naming the players — deer, skunks, owls, elephants, lions… But we also learned terms for animal groups.
Disney’s The Lion King, for example, taught my daughters about “prides of lions.” They learned of “wolf packs” from Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. And Richard Adams’ Watership Down introduced them to “rabbit warrens.”
Such terms are perhaps bits of inane trivia, but they come in handy while watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit. And what better way for a child to impress a parent at the dinner table (or vice versa) than by casually referring to a “murder of crows” or an “intrusion of cockroaches?”
Many biologists keep lists of such collective terms, and I’m no exception. But my informal list became moot years ago when I discovered a book by James Lipton entitled, An Exaltation of Larks, 2nd edition (1977, Penguin Books). (And yes, it’s the same James Lipton who hosts Bravo’s popular Inside the Actor’s Studio.)
Lipton credits Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one source of these expressions. In 1906, post Holmes and Watson, the legendary mystery writer wrote a historical novel called Sir Nigel.
Nigel was the protege of Sir John Buttesthorn, the head huntsman to the King. Sir John’s greatest fear was that young Nigel’s ignorance would someday embarrass both of them.
“I take shame that you are not more skilled in the mystery of the woods, seeing that I have had the teaching of you,” Sir John worried.
Among the many lessons Sir John taught young Nigel is that, “…for every collection of beasts of the forest, and for every gathering of birds in the air, there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another.”
Here are some names of animal congregations. While some may be familiar and even make sense, others strike me as strange and inexplicable.
Invertebrates: A bed of oysters or clams. A smack of jellyfish. A plague of locusts. A business of flies. A swarm of bees. A colony of ants. A web of spiders. A bonfire of fireflies. A bevy of beetles.
Fish: A shoal of bass. A school of fish (Some sources consider this is corruption of “shoal.”) An army of herring. A hover of trout. A shiver of sharks.
Herps: A bask of crocodiles. A knot of toads. A bale of turtles. A slither of snakes.
Birds: A chain of bobolinks. A gulp of cormorants. (Birders familiar with the voice of the American bittern might want to claim “gulp.”) A raft of ducks. A convocation of eagles.
A charm of finches. A stand of flamingos. A kettle (a large number spiraling upward in flight) or a boil (just a few spiraling upward) of hawks. A siege of herons. A party of jays. A parliament of owls. A covey of quail.
An unkindness of ravens. A wisp of snipe. A wedge of swans. A fall of woodcock.
Mammals: A shrewdness of apes. A skulk of foxes. A tower of giraffes. A bloat of hippopotami. A cackle of hyenas. A leap of leopards. A labor of moles. A piddle of puppies. A romp of otters. A prickle of porcupines. A sounder of swine. A crash of rhinoceroses. A scurry of squirrels. A streak of tigers.
Humans: A watch of Swiss. A fifth of Scots. A pint of Irishmen. A torque of mechanics. A flush of plumbers. A travesty of transvestites. A galaxy of astronomers. A portfolio of brokers. An aroma of bakers. A column of accountants.
A shower of meteorologists. A pound of carpenters. A mass of physicists. A lot of car dealers.
Though some of these terms are used by biologists, many are literary with roots reaching to the Middle Ages, some Lipton just made up, and I added a few of my own. If you enjoy word play, start the new year by concocting a few at the dinner table.
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