Cauldrons, murders and unkindnesses

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

It is commonplace for us to refer to certain groups of animals by their correct term: herds of cattle, schools of fish, pods of whales, swarms of bees, litter of puppies, etc. In the avian family, the names for species groups are indeed quite unique, if not intriguing. Three group names are stated in the title of this article.
Bird groups are often named by more interesting terms than ‘flock’. In many cases the group name is more appropriate than one might think. A few examples are highlighted in the ensuing paragraphs.
One might wonder why a group of raptors (hawks for example) would be called a ‘cauldron’. Perhaps these adept hunters had been historically associated with witches’ brew. Wrong. Upon some investigation I learned that the term refers to migratory behaviour. In the autumn when massive flocks of raptors take off from the ground, the spiraling funnels of thousands of birds resemble kettles or cauldrons. Makes sense.
A ‘murder’ of crows is another term that conjures up macabre scenes of ghosts and haunted houses. Again, the group name is based on crow behaviour. Crows are known to fly in large mobs in order to harass other birds, like hawks and owls. Mob mentality frequently ends up in murder. Hence the group name.
Similarly, a group of ravens is referred to as an ‘unkindness’. The ominous appearance of this bearded black bird, with its raucous voice was highlighted in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. It is featured in mythology worldwide. The raven is the cleverest of birds and has been known to steer a hawk to a rabbit (which the hawk kills) and then chase the hawk away so the raven can have his lunch. The hawk would call that ‘unkind’.
Eagles have long been admired for their soaring spirits and have been used as symbols of wisdom and determination. They are always at the top of the food chain. Sports teams and universities often use the eagle image as a logo or mascot. The link to higher education may explain the group name ‘a convocation of eagles’.
A group of peacocks is known as an ‘ostentation’. The reason is obvious when one thinks of the ostentatious strutting of the males, parading their coloured fans for the females. A ‘gaggle’ of geese simply comes from the burbling sound made by a passing flock. A group of hummingbirds is known as a ‘charm’. Everyone is charmed by the beauty of this tiniest of birds, delicately sipping nectar from a bell-shaped flower.
Other examples include: a bevy of quail, a bouquet of pheasants, a company of parrots, an exaltation of larks, a pitying of doves (yes the cooing is pitiful) and a herd of cranes. Try applying these terms next time you see a ‘flock’ of crows or migrating hawks. You may get some strange looks, but you will be the wiser.