A Murder of Crows and Other Terms of Venery

by Stephanie Whetstone

Driving to the shore a few weeks ago, my husband and I passed a wide field full of swans. I had never seen such a sight. It seemed magical that there would be so many of them in one spot, as if a wizard had turned a group of farmers into these beautiful birds in some fairytale.

I knew there was a special collective noun for such a phenomenon; after all, we use collective nouns every day (a staff of employees, a panel of experts, a team of players).

A bunch of bees is called a swarm, and a group of birds is generally called a flock, but swans? When we got home, I did a little research. It turns out that we drove past a bevy of swans or, if you’re a little more fanciful, a lamentation of swans. I’m more fanciful.

These collective terms for animals are called “terms of venery” or hunting. And the tradition of naming them dates back to the Boke of Saint Albans, written by Dame Juliana Berners in 1486, with an introduction added by William Blades in the 1800s.

Should you be tromping through the forest or driving in the country, you might come across a murder of crows, a sloth of bears, a clowder of cats, a clutch of chickens, a dole of doves, a raft of ducks, a convocation of eagles, a business of flies, a gaggle of geese, a kindle of kittens, a scourge of mosquitos, a parliament of owls, a murmuration of starlings (see photo), or a bale of turtles.  In more tropical climes, you might encounter a flamboyance of flamingoes, a conspiracy of lemurs, a barrel of monkeys, or a shrewdness of apes.

On Princeton’s campus, you will surely see an ambush of tigers and a scurry of squirrels, but collective nouns apply to human animals as well. You might run into a body of men, a galaxy of women, a gaggle of sightseers, a class of students, a party of friends, a fortitude of graduate students, a hastiness of cooks, a decorum of deans, an observance of hermits, and perhaps even a fawning of taverners.  And if a collective noun does not exist, let your imagination fill the void!