Wild pigs? Ah, maybe it’s the seals hauled up on the old pilings, grumbling and exchanging the news of the day. But as we walked on the trail through the Woodard Bay forest, the mysterious querulous sounds we heard seemed to be coming from quite a different direction than where the seals gathered. Then I remembered other walks and the same puzzlement that resolved itself when we reached an area where we could see the source of the commotion: it was the cormorants which nest high up in trees similar to Blue Herons. There they were, large, dark birds, calling, chatting, murmuring, flapping, circling, settling in their raggedy nests, at home, gossiping and for all I know, cracking jokes or planning fishing expeditions. Every once in awhile, a section of the birds would rise up and wheel off to fish. They were a sociable group.
Recently, I was gifted with a small charming book of woodcuts by the eighteenth-century English naturalist and artist Thomas Bewick that features “a compendium of collective nouns for birds.” Many of us know that a flock of crows is dolorously called “a murder of crows.” Other examples include “a chatter of Parakeets,” which perfectly describes them, and how about “a scold of jays?” “A trembling of finches” and a “swatting of flycatchers” is apt, and joyous examples such as “an ascension of larks,” “a charm of goldfinches,” or “a spiral of creepers” are delightful. No one knows exactly when these monikers entered the common language—and how many are used today—but they are a reminder of how closely people lived with birds and knew their personalities and habits in more rural times. Perhaps we should once again fill our language with metaphors and colorful descriptors that bring birds into our daily lives in all their wonder.
And cormorants? They are identified as “a swim of cormorants” which is certainly descriptive but only half the story. We ought to come up with a word worthy of the clatter they make in their nesting villages up in the treetops.