Why is it called a murder of crows?
Admit it: you have no idea why a group of crows is called a murder. Here's why.
- In the English language, groups of animals often have interesting names. But a murder?
- It has to do with crow's scavenger-like nature...
- ... but ornithologists are arguing that we change the name.
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Homer destroys Marge's garden scarecrow and inadvertently becomes leader to the local crows. Marge is hesitant to share her bed with a "gang of crows," and Homer gently rebukes her, "It's a murder. A group of crows is called a murder."
That got me wondering: Why doesn't Marge just leave Homer already? It wasn't a few episodes back that she learned Homer never told her about his Vegas wife. How is becoming god-emperor to a murder of crows not grounds for categorical divorce?
Then again, some questions will be forever insoluble, so I turned my attention to something more manageable. Why exactly is it a murder of crows? I know English has a fondness for giving animals fanciful group names, especially birds. A parliament of owls, a charm of finches, a lamentation of swans, the list goes on and on. But why are crows stuck with such a mean-spirited moniker, while ravens — a much larger member of the Corvidae family — live with the much less severe "unkindness of ravens"? For that matter, why the fancy group names in the first place?The answer, I discovered, lies in terms of venery. No, not that venery. At least, I hope not, but be prepared for this to get real weird, real fast.
Terms of, ahem, veneryNEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 28: A black crow seen eating street snack made of puffed rice outside India Gate, on September 28, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Terms of venery are special types of collective nouns that denote groups of animals. The word venery entered English in the early 14th century through the Medieval Latin venaria, which means "beasts of the chase, game." Although archaic by today's standards, venery can still be used to mean "the practice of hunting."
If you're curious, the word's contemporary usage — that is, "indulgence of sexual pleasures" — entered English in the mid-15th century through the Medieval Latin veneria, or "sexual intercourse." Likely these two became homonyms as a play on words. The sport of hunting being compared to hunting for a mate. Clever, no?1
This history is why terms of venery sound like verbal filigree. They weren't coined by scientists creating a way to catalogue species, but by 15th-century English gentlemen who were showing off their wit.2 When these Englishmen went hunting, they would devise names for animal groups based on their poetic interpretation of nature. Some of these terms were clever (a charm of hummingbirds), some obvious (a paddling of ducks), and others just pretentious (an ostentation of peacocks, really?).
Nor was the trend limited to birds. Terms of venery gave us congregations of alligators, armies of caterpillars, cauldrons of bats, and sloths of bears.
These kennings eventually found their way into books — such as in the 15th century The Boke of Saint Albans, a treaties on hawking, hunting, and heraldry — where they were picked up by the literate class. As time went on, they gained an air authority and evolved from playful use of language (re: ye olde slang) to technical terms used by sticklers to show off.
But why a murder?
A European collared dove — groups of doves are referred to as a 'piteousness' because of their prevalence in the Old Testament of the Bible
Terms of venery were often based on characteristics people perceived in the animals, not from their intrinsic nature. A "piteousness of doves," for example, refers to the fact that the bird holds a special place in Christianity — dove returned to Noah with an olive leaf to signal the receding floodwaters, and God came down as a dove to celebrate Jesus' baptism. It has nothing to do with a dove's pious peck.
Likewise, the crow received its term of venery based on religion and folklore. Unfortunately, crows lacked a PR campaign as effective as, well, God.
Crows are omnivorous scavengers and will eat just about anything — insects, seeds, fruits, eggs, and small animals. Historically, they would often appear on battlefields, in cemeteries, and after disasters to snack on the tasty carrion we humans left lying around. One of Europe's species is in fact named the carrion crow.
This association with death led people to believe crows portended disaster. The all-black feathers probably didn't help. Folklore and superstitions further fueled the belief. One folktale tells how crows form a parliament to decide the fate of a member of the flock. Should the verdict be unfavorable, the parliament will set upon the lone crow.3 There's also the Irish mythological figure Morrigan (or Morrigu), who is associated with war, death, and doom and appears as a crow.
It isn't hard to see how someone thought a "murder of crows" would be a appropriate.
But this reputation is hardly fair, and science is showing us that we've massively misjudged this species. Crows are incredibly smart, social birds. They are capable of using tools, playing tricks, and learning new skills.
One study asked crows and children to get a treat out of a tall, narrow tube filled with water. The crows quickly figured out that adding objects to the tube raised the water level, bringing the treat within range. Children younger than 8 fared poorly compared with their corvid opponents.4
Crows have also been known to bring gifts to humans who care for them. Gabi Mann, an 8-year-old Seattleite, feeds local crows in her garden, and the birds show their appreciation by bringing her colorful baubles, such as earrings, marbles, and LEGO blocks. I don't know of any dove, no matter how pious, as thoughtful as that.5
A crow, crowing.
So, our answer is that a group of crows is called a murder because some doublet-clad Englishman wanted to show off his poetical talents by cementing the species' bum rap. In fact, ornithologists don't use terms of venery. They refer to a group of birds, any birds, as a flock.
Since terms of venery aren't authoritative and are numerous enough to be unwieldy, would we be better off retiring them?
I don't think so. They're a fun, inventive way to use language and express our interest in the animals we share the planet with. I'll be the first to admit that a "romp of otters" is adorable and should be said whenever the opportunity arises.
But if we're going to keep these collective terms, we should set some ground rules:
First, grammar sticklers need to just stop. Imagine that four hundred years from now, parents told their teenagers, "She's not your girlfriend, Timmy. You're both younger than 18, so technically, she's your BAE." Arguing that it is only proper to refer to a group of crows as a murder is just as ridiculous. Such arguments only serve to make sticklers feel superior in their trivial knowledge and make English more difficult for non-native speakers to learn. Enough already.
Second, we should update terms of venery when they become obsolete. The phrase "murder of crows" expresses reservations from a time when we didn't understand how complicated, smart, and versatile the species was.
The difficulty will be deciding on what characteristic of the crow should we focus on. We could highlight the crow's problem-solving brain. An intelligent of crows, or a genius bar of crows? Then again, we could focus on their thoughtful nature. A charity of crows, perhaps? Yeah, "charity of crows" has a pleasant ring to it.
1. Entry for "venery." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on Aug. 25, 2018, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/venery#etymonline_v_49968.
2. Terms of venery. Peter Lewis. Medium. Retrieved on Aug. 25, 2018, from https://medium.com/@plewis67/terms-of-venery-2fc9c8684a23
3. A murder of crows: Crow Facts. PBS.org. Published on Feb. 21, 2013. Retrieved on Aug. 26, 2018, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/.
4. Of Beasts and Brainpower. Kat McGowan. Popular Science. Spring 2016. Pg. 60. Print.
5. The girl who gets gifts from birds. Katy Sewall. BBC News. Published on Feb. 25, 2015. Retrieved on Aug. 26, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026.
To create wiser adults, add empathy to the school curriculum.
- Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
- Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
- Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.
- U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
- The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
- The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.
- Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
- Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
- Where's an El Niño when you need one?
Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.
NOAA expects a busy season
According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.
Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.
What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.
This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.
Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:
- The ocean there is warmer than usual.
- There's reduced vertical wind shear.
- Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
- There have been strong West African monsoons this year.
Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:
ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.
First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.
Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.
Image source: NOAA
Batten down the hatches early
If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.
Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."
Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.
Got any embarrassing old posts collecting dust on your profile? Facebook wants to help you delete them.