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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.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Are we enslaved by the finer things in life?
- The Roman writer, Tacitus, argued that the Roman Empire was built by enslaving conquered people who became accustomed to fine living and luxury.
- Technology today has become so essential to our daily lives that it seems impossible to break free of it. It's as much a cage as a luxury.
- Being dependent on a thing gives it power over you. To need something or someone is, for better or worse, to limit yourself.
- There was a massive die-off of marine life 359 million years ago, and nobody knows why.
- A new study proposes that the Late Devonian extinction may have been caused by one or more nearby supernovae.
- The supernova hypothesis could be confirmed if scientists can find "the green bananas of the isotope world" in the geologic record.
Fifty years of research on children's toy preferences shows that kids generally prefer toys oriented toward their own gender.