Monday, November 28, 2011

Collective Nouns of Birds

I'm sure you've heard someone say they saw a flock of geese, maybe a murder of crows, or even perhaps a raft of ducks. These collective nouns are a way to describe what you saw. Now, what you may not know is that there are many incredibly interesting ways to talk about groups of birds more specific to their family or species. Have you ever heard someone say they saw an aerie of hawks? How about a charm of hummingbirds? An unkindness of ravens? I bet not, but check out this list of collective nouns for different birds from

Crèche of penguins, from
Ascension of larks
Bouquet of pheasants
Company of parrots
Convocation of eagles
Covey of quail
Crèche of penguins
Exaltation of larks
Lamentation of swans
Murmuration of starlings (check out this video called Murmuration)
Muster of Peacocks
Parliament of owls
Party of jays
Siege of cranes
Ubiquity of sparrows
Wedge of geese (flying in a V formation)

Siege of Cranes, from
There are many different ways to say you saw a group of something, so wow your friends with some of these!

My personal favorite collective noun is a parliament of owls. Many owl sightings are very brief and magical, and they usually only involve one or two birds. Last December I was doing a Christmas Bird Count (an annual organized bird count that is done all over the world but mostly in the U.S.) in California. It was beginning to rain and we were seeing very few birds, and ready to head to lunch somewhere warm and dry. The woman I was working with said she had seen three or four Short-eared Owls, Asio flammeus, roosting in the tall grass.

Short-eared Owl in flight. From
On our way back through the field we flushed up an owl. Seeing an owl in the middle of the day was a bizarre experience in itself but watching it fly up out of the grass was even weirder because most owls roost in trees and you only see or hear them at night. Then another one flew up. And another, and another, and another, until we were surrounded by at least 24 Short-eared Owls. Up until that day I had never even seen one. They have very small rounded bodies with long elegant wings that flap very distinctively. I felt as if I were in the company of royalty, blessed by their presence, honored to be a part of it all. These owls are very stately, important, a parliament indeed.

Bird Profile: White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow
Some folks say it sounds like "Oh sweet Canada-canada", others say "Old Sam Peabody Peabody". Once you've heard it, you probably wont forget the song of the White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis. In Western North Carolina, they start showing up in the hedges and thickets in early- to mid-November and they fill the cold misty mornings with their wonderous wavering whistle. While most songbirds typically sing only in the breeding season (spring/summer), White-throated Sparrows sing in their winter territories as well.

This large sparrow has large black and white stripes on its head and a yellow patch of feathers above the eye, an area also called the lores. They have, as their name suggests, a bright white throat. Their belly is light gray and their backs and tails are brown. Their bill is gray. They are easily confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, which also has black and white stripes on its head, but does not have the yellow lores or the white throat patch, and their bills are orange or pink instead of gray.

Cool Fact:
Sometimes White-throated Sparrows mate with Dark-eyed Juncos, another kind of sparrow that is not even in the same genus. Their sterile young have darker gray plumage than regular White-throated Sparrows and they have the white outer tail feathers of the Dark-eyed Junco.

For more information on White-throated Sparrows, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

All information taken from

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bird Profile: Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal
Male Northern Cardinal, in all his glory.
Another brilliantly colored resident here in Western North Carolina, the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, stands out in the foliage as a bright red fruit does hanging from a green tree. Cardinals are a popular and well-loved bird, and the state bird of 7 U.S. states, including North Carolina. You may see them hopping around the lower branches of bushes around the academic buildings or shooting out across the trail along the River--a quick flash of vermilion across your vision. Cardinals make a loud high-pitched metallic "chnkkk" call, which sounds to me like two round pieces of metal clinking together. Their song is quite beautiful and, unlike most other species, the female sings as well as the male, sometimes from the nest! To listen to the song and call of the Cardinal, click HERE.


Female Northern Cardinal
The male Cardinal is all red with a black face and a reddish bill. The female is brown-bodied with many red tints on its tail, wings, and crest, and it shares the reddish bill. Male Cardinals do not molt into drab plumage for the winter like most residents, so a Cardinal feeding in a snowy white yard is a sight to behold! Cardinals eat seeds and berries, and occasionally insects. They are also aggressive territory defenders. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "Many people are perplexed each spring by the sight of a cardinal attacking its reflection in a window, car mirror, or shiny bumper. Both males and females do this, and most often in spring and early summer when they are obsessed with defending their territory against any intruders. Birds may spend hours fighting these intruders without giving up. A few weeks later, as levels of aggressive hormones subside, these attacks should end (though one female kept up this behavior every day or so for six months without stopping)." The Cardinal raises his crest in aggression, which can cause him to look like a punk-rocker with a dyed red mohawk.

Cardinals in popular culture:
Are you a baseball fan? The St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series in October!

For more information on Northern Cardinals, go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website "All About Birds".

All information taken from