Murder, mob, or horde – what is a group of crows called? English can be a funny language, and with over 900 collective nouns, it’s bound to get confusing. Crows, as with many bird species, have a myriad of terms to describe a group.
Many of these terms for groups date back to the Late Middle Ages, a time when handbooks were published for nobility and saying the wrong thing could be social suicide (1). So what do you call a flock of crows or a group of ravens, and where do these terms come from? Read on to find out not only what a murder of crows is, but where the term originated from and other terms for groups of birds.
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What is a group of crows called?
Collective nouns are the names given for groups or a collection of people or things. We’re used to using these words in a general sense, like a herd of sheep or the crew of a ship, but when it comes to birds, there are often specialized terms to describe the group.
Crows are social birds with tight-knight family structures that roost in huge numbers (often in the thousands), so what do you call a group of crows? While most people call a group of birds a flock, crows, in particular, have been known by a number of terms. The most popular of these is known as a murder, but a group of crows can also be called a horde, mob, muster, or parcel.
While we know two or three birds don’t constitute a flock, there is no set number of birds needed to call a group a flock, and it often depends on their social behavior (2). Given that crows naturally congregate in large groups, just a few of them together would not normally be called murder since they are likely to gather in these larger groups. When that large group, or flock, of a single species, is gathered, it is known by its poetic term, a murder of crows.
Why is it called a murder of crows?
Emerging during medieval times, and popularized by the nobility, many collective nouns are poetic and colorful in nature. While many of these nouns are complementary (i.e., the pride of lions), many are based on perceived qualities of groups that surely exaggerate both group characteristics and poetic license.
Based on old folk tales, superstitions, and mythology, there are likely several different explanations for the origin of the term murder of crows (4). Scavengers in nature, crows, have a rich association with death and are seen by some as pests, leading to their less than favorable connection with death and fear. Loud, rambunctious, and very intelligent, crows have had a long history of being associated with the macabre.
From a range of old folktales telling of a group of crows deciding the capital fate of another crow to stories of crows scavenging bodies on battlefields, crows have long suffered from this affiliation with death. Folklore and superstition further fueled the belief in crow’s murderous nature and the moniker has stuck.
Like other collective nouns, the term murder of crows persists beyond its original origins and usefulness. Maybe it is their all-black coloring, their prominent place in folklore, or the deafening sound of a flock of crows, but the name isn’t likely going anywhere anytime soon.
Terms of venery and collective nouns
A delightful quirk of the English language, terms of venery, or nouns of the collection as they are also known, are essentially linguistic leftovers from the Late Middle Ages. Many names for groups of animals were first recorded in specially published books for nobility, on the various aspects of noble life, specifically hunting.
These books were designed as manuals to instruct young aristocrats on social graces and activities, without embarrassing them. One of the most influential in surviving, The Book of Saint Albans, is credited with the first appearance of terms of venery (a medieval term for hunting). Among such useful hunting terms as a gaggle of geese and an exaltation of larks, you can also find the wisdom of wombats and a crash of rhinos. Through the course of courtly fashion and the language naturally extending, collective nouns were perpetuated long after their usefulness and introduction.
Although originally relating to venery (hunting), lists came to include human groups and professions and were known to have a nature of humor to them, regardless of practical application. Terms of venery and collective nouns often carry an element of whimsy that denies their practical beginnings, not to mention that many animals on the list do not congregate in the wild (i.e., wombats).
What is a group of ravens called?
Similar to crows, ravens are another member of the corvid family with an unusual term given to them in a group. While crows are most commonly referred to as a murder, ravens have come to be known in a group as an unkindness or a conspiracy. Large black birds, ravens have long been associated with dark omens and traditionally considered creepy (5).
Like crows, ravens appear in many forms of mythology from Celtic and Norse to Native American and Christian mythologies. They hold a steady place in mythology and popular culture alike from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous scene in The Birds to misguided folktales of ravens kicking their young out of the nest before they’re ready. While many of these terms have a basis in animal behavior, it couldn’t be more untrue for a group of ravens.
Ravens are smart, cunning, and fun-loving birds are known to both display affection and mischievousness (6). And while crows often congregate in large groups or roosts, sometimes earning their murderous moniker, ravens generally travel in pairs and congregate less in groups as they mature (7). Whether it is through their behavior or long-standing tradition, a group of ravens is most commonly known as an unkindness, although like crows, they have also been called a congress, horde, or murder.
What is a group of birds called?
Whether you call a group of crows a murder, mob, or horde, there are many other words to describe a congregation of birds. While most of us are familiar with the term flock, lesser-known terms include colony, fleet, or cloud to indicate a large group of birds. Not every group of birds is automatically considered a flock – that depends on both numbers and composition of the group.
Although there is no set minimum, large groups of birds are generally known as flocks (regardless of species), whereas single-species flocks are denoted by more unique, specialized terms rooted in both creativity and function (8). For instance, birds of prey such as hawks and falcons in a group are known as a cast, cauldron, or kettle, whereas more domesticated flocks are known as a gaggle or herd as in the case of geese and ducks.
Adding to the confusion, or perhaps enlightening it, some birds even have different names for groups depending on the activity. Geese found on land would be referred to as a gaggle, whereas a group of geese seen flying is often referred to as a skein or wedge depending on the formation. Although collective nouns for birds can be a bit of fun and linguistic trivia, you won’t find many in common conversation today.
What once started as a bit of whimsy and superstition, has developed into nothing more than a unique and distinctive feature of the language and humorous lingo amongst those who know their origins.