Ruth Bass: Word playing gives birds new nicknames


RICHMOND -- You call a clump of cows a herd, whether they are Jerseys, Herefords or Angus. You call a gathering of fish a school, educated or not, bass or pickerel, perch or whiskered catfish.

It can be quite different with birds. Sure, there's flock. But there's more. Perhaps it's the ability to fly that has gathered them so many unique group names -- a murder of crows, for instance, or a gaggle of geese.

Some of these special names for bird groups date back centuries. Others are more recent, and the practice of such groupings is neatly summarized and expanded in a book called "An Exaltation of Larks" by James Lipton. It was first published in 1968 and has been on our shelves for a long time, a volume of intriguing phrases to delight people who like words.

Lipton, by the way, is not even satisfied with the word herd for a bunch of cows. "A rumination of cows" is one of the inventions in his book, bringing an instant picture of satisfied bovines chewing their cuds after dining.

Birds may have more fun with individual fancy phrases, but Lipton has dug up special designations for all kinds of animals and provides the roots for the names, many of them of French or English origin and corrupted by one country or the other into present day form. And then he has made up new ones and invited others to invent as well.

Birds seem to maintain their place as more specialized than other creatures, however. There's a glister of goldfinches, an exaltation of larks, a swoop of swallows, a chain of bobolinks, a scold of blue jays, a murmuration of starlings, which are at their best when they murmurate by the hundreds across a gray sky.


Lipton's bird list includes "a shimmer of hummingbirds." But we did not see that ruby throat shimmer or glimmer for some days this month. Wet feathers and a dark space between beak and breast has been the most of it -- and the green backs, sometimes brilliant in the sun, have been duller than green olives.

They did not shine, but these perpetual motion machines were eating -- eating in Lipton's terms like "a sounder of swine." The sugar water in the glass feeder outside the kitchen window always turns cloudy before it is gone. It didn't have a chance of spoiling last week.

Perhaps driven a little frantic by the gallons of falling water we have been under for days, our hummingbirds were gulping away two at a time, with two or three more flitting about hoping for a seat at the table. They perched and drank long.

With their tiny bodies trying to move through the constant weight of rain, it's no wonder. And they are supporting a tiny heart that has more than a thousand beats a minute. That kind of statistic makes me wonder who counted the pulse, but Google says it's so.

On the last night of last week's falling water, they were still eating well after dusk, probably because of the light coming out to them from the kitchen. Then they began to circle, fly up and fly down, exceptionally frenetic, five at a time. The feeder had to be empty, and we tried to ignore it.

But well after sunset (we assume the sun set, although we have no evidence of that), I sighed, put on boots, took the spare sugar water out of the fridge and sallied forth, knowing very wet daylilies and ferns were in my way. The feeder was completely empty. Wet to the knees, I filled it, put it back and fled.

Within minutes, they were back and ate until true dark. And in the morning, they shimmered once more.

Ruth Bass, a former Sunday editor of The Eagle, lives in Richmond. Her web site is


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