Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 23, 2018

A Collective Interest

Funny how quite trivial, random occurrences can set the mind thinking along equally unexpected pathways.  In this instance it was the chance noticing in the back of a 1981 edition of the Collins Pocket Dictionary (a book which among others I had rescued from the oblivion of landfill) of a page of collective nouns.  It provided a few minutes enjoyable distraction from whatever it was I was supposed to be doing at the time, enough indeed to write about it here.

Brent Geese on the wing (scaled)

Winter flocks Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) gather in their thousand around the sheltered coasts and estuaries of Britain.

Many in the list were fairly run-of-the-mill; the herds of this and flocks of that.  Others though had clearly, some time in the past, caught the imagination of their observers, leading thoughts toward the pleasingly onomatopoeic and occasionally, it would appear, to a decidedly poetic turn of phrase.  Of the former, a ‘gaggle of geese’ is a very well-known and most apt case in point, as anyone who has listened to the gathering winter flocks of Pink-feet and Brents would no doubt testify; the word gaggle is derived from the Old English gagelen – to cackle.  Others, like ‘a leap of leopards’, ‘a chattering of choughs’ or ‘a pack of hounds’, provide no less descriptive examples.

Of those more poetic turns the ‘charm of goldfinches’ is known by many and as indisputable as the geese above.  With such colourful appearance and sweet, jangling music how could they be regarded as anything other than charming?  There were others on the list however, that demonstrate a similar sense of intimacy possessed by the onlooker that first expressed them.  An ‘exaltation of larks’ requires little explanation given the beautiful, soaring songs of the male birds in spring.  The ‘shrewdness of apes’ puts me very much in mind the Orang-utan I was lucky enough to see in the forests of Borneo last year.  They would often tolerate our inquisitiveness and often not stir from their lofty vantage, looking back at us with a kind of sleepy thoughtfulness.  Yet always, one could sense, they remained quietly alert and harbouring, I dare say, their own thoughts about ourselves.

Orang-utan and baby at Danum (scaled)

Orang-utan mother and young one in the Danum Valley, Borneo.

One of my favourites though is ‘a wisp of snipe’.  A glance at the same dictionary defines a ‘wisp’ variously as “a small bunch or tuft“, or as “something delicate, frail, etc“, things which in their own way describe the demeanour of the birds on some winter marsh, huddling cryptically among the tussocks, or flushed from cover and that small shape arcing upwards into the grey sky and lost from view amid heaving, portentous clouds.


Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

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