There are many weird and wonderful collective nouns for birds, but none is quite as sinister as the macabre murder of crows. Even ravens which, some would argue, are much more deserving of a deadly moniker get away fairly lightly with a relatively mild unkindness
To understand the origin of the different collective nouns for birds and animals we need to go back to the Middle Ages and the era of Medieval hunting. Back then, hunting for the aristocracy was more than just a sport, or a means to find food. It was an important measure of privilege and nobility, and all aspects of the hunt such as the animals to be hunted, their body parts, the stages of the chase, and the behaviour of the hounds, had different terminology.
The specialised vocabulary used in courtly hunting was known as “terms of venery”, venery being an old word for hunting from the Latin vēnor meaning “I hunt”. Knowledge of this terminology was very important to distinguish the upper-class gentlemen from the yeomen and the villains.
At the same time the English language was going through a massive expansion and the fashion for collectively naming hunting animals was picked up by literate classes outside of the nobility. Over the next century the practice became a phenomenon and gave us hundreds of new terms of venery including a knot of toads, a drove of donkeys, and a shrewdness of apes.
Much wit and imagination was involved in coming up with these new descriptions and a number of semantic devices such as onomatopoeias (a gaggle of geese), characteristics (a spring of teal), or appearance (a parliament of owls) were used. Sometimes incorrect transcriptions led to corrupted forms such as a siege of herons (like bitterns, herons are found amongst the sedges and reeds of wetlands) or a school of fish (from shoal).
The Egerton Manuscript and The Book of St. Albans, both dating from the mid-1400s, list many of the terms still in use today such as a charm of goldfinches, a pride of lions, and a murder of crows. Incidentally, although goldfinches are indeed charming birds, the word charm in this case derives from the Old French word for ‘song’.
The fun of inventing collective nouns continues today; a couple of modern examples are a wunch of bankers and a book of Mormons.
So why a murder of crows? The most likely explanation is that the crow received its collective noun because of its behaviour as well as its perceived characteristics.
Crows are scavengers and will feed on carrion as well as take small animals, such as lambs, eggs and baby birds. Historically crows and other corvids would have been seen near battlefields, medieval hospitals, cemeteries, or the gallows waiting for a chance to pick over dead bodies. This association with death resulted in the development of superstitions and folklore around crows and other corvids.
Once such tale says that crows form tribunals or parliaments to judge and punish the bad behaviour of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant that bird is murdered by the rest of the flock. There is probably a grain of truth in this story in that crows will occasionally kill a weak or dying crow that has encroached on their territory. But there is no evidence that crows routinely perform capital punishment on its own species.
There are other collective nouns for crows including a horde, a hover, a mob, a parcel, a parliament, and a storytelling.
A parliament is also used to describe a group of owls, Owls have long been considered wise dating back to Ancient Greece when the goddess of wisdom Athena was often seen accompanied by an owl. There are a few theories as to why owls are perceived as wise but it’s probably due to their wide-eyed, somewhat thoughtful gaze, and their ability to see at night.
Crows were probably given the collective noun parliament due to the folk tale described above. Of course, we now know that crows are fairly intelligent birds so it could be that a Medieval linguist recognised this trait too.
As for a storytelling of crows? This is a bit of an unknown but crows do tend to gather in large flocks and are known for their loud ‘caw’. Perhaps someone observed this and decided that they weren’t so much plotting a murder but were telling stories to each other.
If you know of the origin of a storytelling of crows please let us know in the comments below – we’re dying to find out what the explanation is.