For anyone familiar with countryside wisdom, many of the words used to describe a collection of the birds we see on a regular basis are simply part of history and folklore. A gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, or a parliament of owls. But where do these terms come from? Some can be referenced as far back as the fifteenth century and others have more modern origins. Some have fanciful explanations and others have none at all! Here are just a selection:
A fall of woodcocks – In the Harleian Miscellany from the 18th Century Charles Morton stated “In woodcocks especially, it is remarkable that upon a change of the wind to the east, about Allhallows-tide, they will seem to have come all in a night; for though the former day none are to be found, yet the next morning they will be found in every bush….” In the book of St Albans (1486), this sudden appearance of the birds is what is meant by a fall of Woodcocks with the phenomenon comparable to a fall of snow.
An unkindness of ravens – From the legend that ravens pushed the young from their nest to be “nourished with dew from heaven” as The Folk Lore of British Birds put it in 1885, “until the adult birds saw what colour they would be.”
A deceit of lapwings (although some use the term dessert) – this refers to the adult lapwings’ efforts to draw unwelcome visitors away from its nest and chicks and was first referenced back in the fifteenth century in the Egerton Manuscript.
A nye of pheasants (when they are on the ground) – is thought to derive from Anglo-Norman ny, from Latin nidus, a nest. A bouquet of pheasants (when in the air) – this term is used for pheasants when they are flushed, as they fly away forming a beautifully coloured spectacle that looks like flowers.
A tok of capercaillies – unknown origin
A sorde of mallard – it is thought the term sorde comes from the Latin ‘surgere’ – to rise
A spring of teal – this term is thought to originate from the birds’ action when flushed.
A watch of nightingales – In The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds, 1885, the Rev. Charles Swainson retells the legend of the nightingale and the blindworm who only had one eye apiece. Invited to the wren’s wedding, the nightingale “was ashamed to show herself in such a condition,” so she stole an eye from the sleeping snake, who swore to get it back when the nightingale slept – which explains why, from that day to this, the nightingale has maintained a nocturnal watch, keeping itself awake by singing through the night.
An ostentation of peacocks – originally described as a muster (a fifteenth century term), the term ostentation first appeared in 1925 in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News periodical. It is thought the word ostentation more closely reflects the fifteenth century definition of the word ‘muster’.
Information sourced from ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ by James Lipton 1993