For the Birds Radio Program: Collective Nouns for Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 12, 1988

When are geese a gaggle, and when are they a skein? (3:45)

Duration: 3′49″


(Recording of a Canada Geese)

People have been spotting geese in the Northland all summer, probably because of the drought. Most people don’t have any trouble distinguishing a Canada Goose from a Snow Goose, but not many people know the difference between a gaggle of geese and a skein of geese. It’s actually pretty logical—migrating geese form lines or V’s that reminded someone long ago of a skein of yarn—hence, a group of geese in the sky is called a skein. But when a flock of geese is on the ground, it no longer forms a skein—grounded geese mill around gregariously, forming a gaggle. So the geese living in Rochester’s golf course obviously make up a gaggle, but the powers that be in Rochester wish they’d form into a skein and get the heck out of there.

Many other birds have unique collective nouns to describe their flocks. Some are pretty widely-known, like a covey of partridge, a bevy of quail, a brood of chicks, a colony of gulls, and that most basic collective term of all, a flock of birds. But lots of the words for specific types of flocks are much more obscure, like a congregation of plovers, a descent of woodpeckers, a watch of nightingales, and a fling of sandpipers. Sparrows form a host, a group of pigeons is a kit or a loft, and one word for a flock of peacocks is a muster.

Northlanders are familiar with migrating hawks, which form kettles, swirling on updrafts like the steam rising from a teakettle. And once the hawks reach the top of the updraft, they head out in a stream.

Some other collective nouns for birds are based on the behavior of the birds, as in a fall of woodcocks, a flight of swallows, a peep of chickens, a walk of snipe, a stand of flamingoes, and a spring of teal. Game birds have provided rich soil for sprouting collective nouns: a group of pheasants, for example, can be called a bouquet, a brace, a covey, or a nide. Mallards form sords or sutes. And gunners have called groups of swans banks, games, and marks. Some collective words for birds conjure up a mood or image that the birds arouse: whoever coined the phrase an exaltation of larks clearly had spent some time in open country with larks singing on the wing.

(Recording of a Horned Lark)

A murmuration of starlings sounds as pleasant as–well, the murmurations of starlings, and a charm of finches is a charming image too. The sad song of turtle doves inspired two terms: a dole of doves and a pitying of doves. Some collective words conjure up more humorous images: a parliament of owls, a paddling of ducks, a gulp of cormorants, and an ostentation of peacocks.

Crows and ravens have never fared well in literature, as their collective nouns attest. A group of ravens is termed an unkindness, and anyone would shudder at the image of a murder of crows.

(Recording of an American Crow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”