What Do You Call a Group of Crows?


Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj

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A few days ago, I posted an article How do you call a group of fish?  My friend Amir Ganesan Amirthalingam posed the question “What do you call a group of crows?” And I answered him ”Murder”.

There are different collective nouns to describe large groups of different birds. Most of them are descriptive of the group of birds and their behaviour or personalities. Some collective nouns such as flock, colony, fleet, can apply to all bird species.

Other flock names used include cloud, mass, collection, throng, murmuration, parcel, or dissimulation. This list is not exhaustive.

Some flock names are rare, obsolete and seldom-used. A few that I have come across are plain silly but are familiar to ornithologists.

Murder of crows

A murder of crows (publicdomainpicture.net)

Crows are members of the Corvidae family which includes ravens, magpies, and blue jays. They are noisy, precocious, smart, and their intelligence never ceases to amaze us. Farmers consider the crows as pests and try to protect their crops and seedlings from them. Crows are most often associated with a long tradition of fear and paranoia. The black feathers of the crow frighten some people who associate them with death. 

New research proves crows are gregarious, caring and one among the smartest creatures on the planet.

Here is a list of collective nouns used rarely for a flock of crows: horde, hover, mob, muster, parcel, storytelling and murder.

For most of the year, the crows are affable, wary and intelligent. . They are territorial, especially during the nesting season. They roost as a community consisting of hundreds of birds usually on large trees. They gather in large numbers at food sources and attractive dumpsters. 

In 1486 AD, St Albans Press in England printed The Book of Saint Albans (or Boke of Seynt Albans). It is also known by the title “The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms“. In the 15th century, there was a fad for terms of venery (an archaic word for hunting) or names for groups of game animals. This book contains a long list of collective nouns for animals, and it has, of course, a murder of crows though without any explanation.  

Though there was an obsession for terms of venery in the 15th century, most of them fell out of use in the 16th century including the murder of crows. 

There are several explanations for the origin of this term, based on old folktales and superstitions.

    • According to one folktale, a flock of crows will gather to decide the fate of a crow that encroaches their turf. If the crow is guilty, the group will execute (that is, “murder”) the defendant. This is based on the fact that flock of crows will kill a dying crow which doesn’t belong to their territory. The crows are sometimes prone to cannibalism and feed on carcasses of already dead crows.   
    • Crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies and cemeteries. In the medieval period, crows hovered over execution sites, battlefields, hospitals, and cemeteries. They scavenged on human remains. To some, the appearance of crows is an omen of death. So, when a large number of crows circle above a site, they expect someone to die soon.  
    • Medieval peasants feared the sinister-looking crows. They believed the crows came from the Devil or were witches in disguise. To them, a flock of crows would have appeared murderous.
    • When rediscovered in the early 20th century, authors then posited that the term murder of crows was correct because of the tremendous noise the crows make. 
    • Some etymologists suggest that the association of crows and ravens with death might have led to the use of the word murder

To me, the term “murder of crows” reflects a time when many animal groups had vivid and poetic names. 

Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology wrote on his website that no scientist would call it a murder of crows. “Scientists would call it a flock,” he wrote.

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