A paddling of ducks


As we get ready for fall bird migration, a fun thing to think about is the ancient language art of collective bird nouns.

Beginning in ancient England, the practice was a way to make landed gentry appear more intelligent than commoners.

Using collective bird nouns exhibit a variety in vocabulary instead of repeatedly using the words group or flock when describing an indeterminate number of birds of a species.

A rule in picking these descriptive nouns is that they might reflect a trait of the bird species.

For instance, wisdom of owls, charm of goldfinches, screech of gulls, wake of turkey vultures or scold of jays.

Probably the most renowned collective bird noun denoting a trait is murder of crows. It was once thought that crows were an omen of death. Crows are scavengers. They frequented battlefields where large numbers circled above sites where animals or people were expected to soon be dead. We now know that crows don’t cause death, but the traditional moniker lives on.

Another option in choosing a collective noun is to use alliteration, as in congress of cormorants, community of coots, gaggle of geese, flotilla of frigatebirds, hedge of herons or mischief of magpies.

At the beach we might see a scavenging of gulls, squadron of pelicans, congregation of plovers, baffle of buffleheads, or cloud of sea fowl. Inland, there will be covey of quail, gulp of swallows, pandemonium of parrots, murmuration of grackles or undulation of blackbirds.

Along resacas lakes and rivers in the Rio Grande Valley, we’re likely to see a sunning of cormorants perched on snags.

September brings a paddling of Mexican black-bellied whistling ducks. If they are on water or on land, they would be a safe of ducks. These gregarious and entertaining ducks converge in fall in the Valley prior to the migrant birds heading south for the winter while our resident whistlers remain in smaller knobs/ sords/colonies.

Through the ages, the art of collective group names has evolved to include many species, like pride of lions, lounge of lizards, troupe of dancers, regiment of soldiers, panel of experts, board of directors and even a scoop of journalists.

Anita Westervelt is a Texas Master Naturalist and provides monthly articles to The Monitor.