Swans, hummingbirds and penguins, for example, have more than wings and feathers in common. They each have a collective noun, too. Here is a rudimentary grammar lesson: nouns are the names of people, places or things: toddler, island or bird. Collective nouns are the names of groups of things: family, nation or flock.

Collective nouns can be rich and varied – especially for birds and other animals (school of fish) – that describe their particular grouping. More common collective nouns are a pod of whales and a pride of lines.

It’s interesting to trace the origin of the idiosyncratic collective nouns. In his book: A Conspiracy of Ravens, Bill Oddie states that in the Late Middle Ages, a hunting fraternity began a game of inventing animal group names. This game became adopted as common practice for a couple of centuries.  

Some of these names were collected in The Book of Saint Albans (1486), attributed to Juliana Berners, thought to be a nun.  The invention of the printing press, and the several printings of the book,  of which only three copies remain, kept the excitement alive.  Over the past 500 years, several lists of collective nouns have been created. Some of the collective nouns have to do with the action of the group, such as a leap of leopards, or a murmuration of starlings.  Not every list agrees with the collective noun for the specific species, much like a dictionary is a catalogue of accepted meaning, For example on one list a group of swans is called a bevy, in another it is called a gaggle, which is also a word used to describe geese.

Let’s take a look at some of the collective nouns of the wildlife we see in our own backyard, as well as some further afield. Our swan friends, who have just left us for warmer destinations (or are in the process of leaving), are a good place to start.

This is a good time to learn and practice swan terminology for next spring, when the swans return to M’Clintock Bay.

You will be able to impress your friends. “Look at that bevy of swans,” you will say confidently, to the amazement and delight of those around you. Your friends and bystanders will be overwhelmed with the precision and scope of your vocabulary. Bevy, according to Dictionary.com is a word of unknown origin that comes to us from the 15th Century.  The word might have come from the Old French bievre, (same root as beverage).  It is possible that the original sense of the word could be a company of birds gathered at a puddle or pool for drinking or bathing. If they are flying in a V, a group of swans is called a wedge.  Wedge comes from Middle English, Old English and Proto-German, and means a simple machine made of metal or wood, thick at one end and tapering to a thin edge.  Swans in flight would have a shape similar to a wedge.  Swan comes from the Indo-European root “swen” (to sound, to sing).  An adult male swan is a cob, from Middle English cobbe (leader of a group).

Other names for a group of swans are: herd, team, bank, eyrar, gargle, as well as whiteness (not much imagination in the last one).

Also one of our well known and beloved neighbours in the summer is the hummingbird. Collective nouns describing hummingbirds include: a charm of hummingbirds, a troubling of hummingbirds, and a hover of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds, at least the ones who frequent my feeders, are fiercely territorial; they chase competitors away from the feeder. They arrive with a buzz, and at breakneck speed. As fascinating as hummingbirds are, I am firmly in the troubling of hummingbirds camp.

Further away, penguins live only in the southern hemisphere. I was fortunate enough to see penguins in Chile, Argentina, Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. Fun fact: Polar bears live only in the arctic. Penguins and polar bears are never together, except in a commercial for a well known soft drink. Penguins also have many collective nouns. A group of penguins is called a colony, rookery or a waddle. Colony sounds as if they are setting up in new lands. Although they are clumsy on land, they are completely at home in the water – they seem to fly through the water. If penguins are in the water, they are called a raft.

Next time we will explore the collective nouns for Canada geese, eagles and ravens.