Avid birdwatchers take great pride in learning the scientific names of the birds they spot. This is equally true in their own backyards as during a birdwatching tour.
Take the American crow. This bird’s genus is Corvus, the Latin word for crow; its species brachyrhynchos, for short billed. For birdwatchers who want to go further, there are other scientific classifications to learn about: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and subfamily.
If you find the Latin terminology dry, there are a host of other names for bird groups that might pique your interest. Unlike the scientific names that serve to break down the classifications of bird species, these names are used to describe a large flock of a specific birds. Though some aren’t frequently used, and some are obsolete, most are still familiar to birders. These names are given based on behaviors and/or personalities making them range from strange to downright silly.
With this in mind, let’s explore a few of these unique names given to some different species of birds.
See also: A Dictionary of Birding Slang Terms
Gaggle of Geese
Everyone has heard the term ‘a gaggle of geese.’ The word gaggle comes from the Dutch root word ‘gagelen,’ meaning to cackle. We only use the term gaggle to describe a flock of geese that are on the ground or on the water. When in the air, we call this flock a ‘skein.’
Murder of Crows
How fitting that the name for a large group of crows is a murder. These ominous looking black birds have long been associated with mayhem and death, featured in classic movies and novels alike. The term’s origin comes from the Middle English word murthre, a variant of murder that years later evolved. Dating back to the 15th century, folklore told of crows holding court over members of their group that had committed an offense. If the flock decided against the defendant crow, the other members of the flock would swoop down on the crow and kill it, thus the term murder.
Chain of Bobolink
The bobolink is a member of the blackbird family. Some in bird circles debate on why this flock of birds is called a chain. It could be the unusually long claws for a songbird. They make for a strong grip easily forming a chain as they ‘hang’ together in large numbers. However, most birding resources state that each bobolink in a flock is another ‘link’ in the chain. Interestingly, like the crow, the bobolink has been immortalized in many poems where they are mentioned by name.
Mewing of Catbirds
It’s only fitting that one should refer to a flock of catbirds as a mewing. This may have its roots in the genus name, Ailuroedus, which comes from the Greek language meaning cat-voiced. Catbirds are migrants from the tropics. If you have been spotting a catbird in your yard every spring, there’s a good chance it’s the same catbird each year. These lucky birds have a high survival rate and often return to the same habitat year after year. Considering the perils of migration and the number of birds who do not survive the annual trip, this bird could be said to be ‘sitting in the catbird seat’.
Charm of Goldfinch
The goldfinch is a small, acrobatic bird that, in flight, appears to bounce as they fly from feeder to feeder. Oftentimes flocks of birds are named with behaviors or personalities in mind. No wonder we call a flock of goldfinches a ‘charm’. The word gets its origin from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cirm’ which means many chattery voices together. It dates to the 15th century when a flock of goldfinches was referred to as a ‘chyrme of fynches.’ This evolved over time to simply a charm of goldfinches. This name is just one example of a flock being named for its personality.
Murmuration of Starlings
We would be remiss not to point out starlings. Their well-known flocking behavior is known as a murmuration. The term refers to the phenomenon of hundreds, up to thousands, of starlings taking to the skies in swooping, coordinated patterns.
Brought to North America first in New York City’s Central Park during the 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts, there are said to be more than 200 million starlings in North America today. Known for their aggressive behavior, they are often referred to as menaces. Many birdwatchers try to discourage them from raiding their feeders. However, when it comes to spotting a murmuration of starlings in the sky, you’ll be hard pressed to find a birdwatcher that won’t stop and stare in awe at this breathtaking show.
These are just a few examples of the unique names we use to describe flocks of birds. If you’re looking to add another fun element to your birdwatching toolbox, explore the internet to see how many more names you can discover. For birdwatchers, there is always something new to learn.