Regulars and Shorts

Animals Animals: A Murder of Crows

By Sunny Branson

Exploring terms of venery.
by Sunny Branson
branson_animals.jpgWhat do Venus, venison, and venereal disease have in common? They are all derived from the Latin word venari, meaning "to desire" but also "to hunt." Collective animal group nouns are called terms of venery and have been assigned to game animals as far back as 500 years ago by high-society English hunters. The hunters thought it appropriate to give the noblest beasts a proper group name.

A pride of lions

A sloth of bears

A herd of deer

Venison nowadays refers to meat from a deer, but in earlier times it meant the flesh of any hunted animal. Terms of venery eventually moved to animals of lower orders and even insects.

Terms of venery were chosen for various reasons – sometimes to describe the animals' usefulness (a pack of mules); other times to describe appearance (a bloat of hippopotami, a knot of toads, a bouquet of pheasants). And some were chosen for strictly poetic value – birds being a favorite for this category.

An exaltation of larks

A parliament of owls

An ostentation of peacocks

A murmuration of starlings

A pitying of turtledoves

A watch of nightingale

A charm of goldfinches

With some terms of venery, it's easy to see how the group got its name.

A leap of leopards

A tower of giraffes

A flutter of butterflies

But others are not so obvious.

A murder of crows

A venue (or kettle) of vultures

An unkindness of ravens

It is thought the term for crows may have come about when crows fed on human corpses. In mythology and legends, crows are often portrayed as omens of doom or death because of their tendency to circle around dying animals. They are also known to kill their own kind – either due to territorial disputes, or simply for survival of the fittest. Dark plumage and unnerving screeches only add to their ominous mystique.

One logically assumes that vultures would have a similarly uncomplimentary term, but they are known as a venue of vultures, or when the birds are circling on thermals, a kettle of vultures because they resemble the rising bubbles of a boiling pot of water. However, the ravens, as the crows' cousins, share the assignment of a gloomy although less sinister term – an unkindness of ravens.

It seems a few terms of venery were chosen for alliteration.

A leap of lizards

A dole of doves

A gaggle of geese

Many appear to have been created on a whim, for example, a business of ferrets. Some people think it relates to the "busy-ness" of ferrets. In my experience with ferrets, spending most their daylight hours sleeping draped over one another, I think a more appropriate term would be a pile of ferrets.

But it appears that most were chosen for behavioral reasons.

A party of jays

A piteousness of doves

A skulk of foxes

A turmoil of porpoises

A mischief of rats

A shrewdness of apes

I'd say guinea pigs were cheated when terms of venery were handed out. They were stuck with a herd of guinea pigs. It seems they could at least share the term for groups of pigs – a sounder or a passel. In honor of the guinea pig, I came up more appropriate terms.

A wheek of guinea pigs

A grazing of guinea pigs

A coprophagia of guinea pigs

A popcorn of guinea pigs

An apprehension of guinea pigs

Some terms of venery have become obscure but all reflect a fascination with and perhaps an appreciation for the animal world. If you're interested in terms of venery, you may enjoy the book, "An Exaltation of Larks" by James Lipton.

I leave you with a few more of my favorites:

A dazzle of zebras

An implausibility of gnus

A parade of elephants

A rookery of penguins

A smack of jellyfish

A crash of rhinoceros

Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media, volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue, and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2007.