On my wanderings today I saw a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, and a sord of mallards on a boat (pictured); and although I saw a heron, it was unaccompanied so I can’t truthfully say I saw a siege of them. Nor did I see a charm of finches or an unkindness of ravens, but the day is still young.
Living on the Atlantic coast brings me into regular contact with a variety of sea and city birds. In the case of the more timid birds “contact” is an exaggeration, but a gentle tread and a zoom lens help shorten the distance.
Other birds are more sociable. Last year I met a swan so sociable it almost ate my thumb along with the slice of wholewheat loaf I offered it. Maybe it had a craving for a meat sandwich. That was in Swantown, better known as The Claddagh:
With its human-swan metamorphoses, The Children of Lir (versions here and here) was one of many Irish legends that entranced me in childhood. Back then such stories felt more real and historical, and were not quickly classified as “mere fiction”. Far from it: I remember feeling fierce disappointment upon learning that dragons did not exist. If that’s so, I thought, how does everyone know what they are? Needless to say, I was too young for Jung.
Ideas of nomenclature and definition fascinated me and took me on random pursuits of meaning through the pages of my pocket English dictionary. I puzzled over the inevitable cul-de-sacs and epistemological ambiguities, though that’s not what I called them. The end section of the book opened up further avenues of intrigue, not least its geographical and natural lists. I knew the heights of the highest mountains and the lengths of the longest rivers.
But the list that tickled me most was the one of collective nouns for animals and birds. How odd and evocative these terms were! Who ever thought of a shrewdness of apes, or an exaltation of larks, and why? There’s no short answer, but you can read lists compiled by Narena Olliver and the Oxford University Press, and commentary from Terry Ross and Michael Quinion.
A quick note on stonechats before I disappear outdoors again. They are small birds of 11.5–13cm length, about the size of a robin. They are named after their alarm call, which sounds like two small stones clacking together. They also sing.
Stonechats build nests of moss and grass on or near the ground, then they make them cosier with wool and feathers. To protect themselves from predation they like rough land such as heathland, and coastal terrain with good cover, such as that provided by furze (gorse) and other dense shrubbery.
The male (above, right) is a colourful fellow, especially in summer, with a black head, orange-red breast, and white patches on his neck, wings, lower belly and rump. The female (above, left) looks similar but with a brown head, less bold breast colour, and less clearly defined white patches on her neck.
They’re beautiful creatures, don’t you think? I took those photos on separate days, so for those of you wondering, I don’t know whether there is a romantic connection between the subjects. More to the point, I haven’t found a collective noun for them. Any suggestions? If I hear one I like, I’ll start using it!