A SHORT drive though our local countryside took us down a lane where we found ourselves heading towards a grey partridge with her clutch of chicks as they crossed the road.

There seemed to be a lot of chicks, more than a dozen at a quick estimate as they hurried towards the shelter of the hedge and long grass, then disappeared into safety.

As we continued our journey my wife said it was the first time she had seen a covey of partridges – mostly, they appeared in ones and twos, but this small incident reminded me that the collective noun covey applies to another species which is also a game bird. That is the grouse and the term refers to a family of grouse. A large number of grouse together is called a pack whilst a pair of partridges is a brace. A pair of pheasants is also called a brace but a family of them is a brood or sometimes a nye, probably depending where you live. Different localities may use different terms for such things.

Many species of birds and animals have well-known collective names, some being unpleasant but which may reflect the behaviour of the creature in question. For example, a group of ravens is known as an unkindness of ravens.

Their near-cousins, the crows, are called a murder of crows when in a groups but rooks are known as clamours or even a building. I have no idea why a gathering of rooks should be called a building.

Pigs and pups come in litters whilst wolves roam in packs. Dogs also come in packs whilst we have herds of cows and cattle, as well as herds of asses and deer but also herds of curlews, wrens and swans. There are deceits of lapwings and congregations of plovers or wisps of snipe along with rushes of pochards, flushes of mallard, a company of widgeon and paddlings of other ducks.

Some collective nouns are very attractive such as a charm of goldfinches, a watch of nightingales, an exaltation of larks and the magnificent murmurations of starlings.

Flock is a collective name for many species of bird ranging from swifts and pigeons to geese. The name flock applies when geese are on the water but they are a gaggle when not on the water and a skein when in flight. Flock also applies to sheep but I think a labour of moles is a good name for those busy creatures along with a nest of mice or a business of ferrets.

Some birds such as gulls live in colonies, whilst hens are often known as a brood of hens or chickens; magpies are a tiding, thrushes in a group are known as a mutation and woodpeckers are a descent.

Perhaps one of the most descriptive of collective names is a siege of herons, bearing in mind the havoc they can wreak in fish ponds and hatcheries.

Fish have their own collective nouns. Perhaps the best known is a shoal of fish, or a shoal of named fish such as herring or goldfish. Another common collective name for fish in general is a school but there are others such as a flutter of jellyfish, a catch of many fish netted at the same time, or even a cran of herring. I can recall the scene at the fishmarket in Whitby when the catch of herrings was being sold by the cran in the fish market. I never worked out what a cran really was in avoirdupois weight but it was a barrel full of herrings amounting to about 37.5 gallons or some 750 fish.

In discussing collective nouns for our animal and bird friends, we cannot ignore swarms of insects, hives of bees, ant hills, wasps’ nests and things that go bump in the night.

When considering the variety of names given to groups of animals, birds and fish, we should not ignore ourselves. We humans have our own collective names – some come immediately to mind such as crowd, gathering, throng, family, squad, team, troupe, circle, club and party.

However, some have alternative meanings. One example is gang.

For some of us, gang suggests an unpleasant or dangerous number of people, probably out-of-control or threatening, whilst in several other occupations a gang is a crew of workers who are engaged on particular tasks such as roadwork, forestry and similar skilled enterprises. It can also imply a circle of friends, a troupe of entertainers or something unpleasant like a mob.

There are many alternative names too. An audience is usually a crowd of people with like interests, as are clubs, societies, spectators, onlookers, tourists and holidaymakers.

There are more such as multitudes, church congregations, political protesters, strikers, fans of various kinds and thousands of other gatherings for varying reasons. Really, we are just one large collective.

Larking around

It is difficult to ignore a skylark when it is in full flight and in full song. Somewhere in the heavens above our wide-open spaces, very often unseen, this otherwise inconspicuous bird will trill its distinctive notes. On a visit to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, skylarks filled our sky with their music, whilst on Bempton Cliffs, the bird sanctuary near Flamborough Head, the songs of skylarks can be heard even above the raucous, never-ending cries of almost quarter of a million seabirds.

There is no doubt the lark’s music is enough to overcome most other sounds and although its song does not rate alongside those of the nightingale, blackbird or thrush, it is sufficiently inspiring to attract poets and musicians.

“Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composition for violin and orchestra, is one of Britain’s most popular pieces of classical music whilst many poets have honoured this bird.

It is the lark’s practice of singing aloft that makes it such a difficult character to observe. It will rise vertically for several hundred feet into the heavens whilst continuously singing. Up there, of course, it becomes little more than a black dot and difficult to see even with binoculars, but as it returns to earth it becomes more visible with its song coming to an end as it approaches the ground.

Back to earth, it is difficult to see against the vegetation because it is small and sombre coloured in its various shades of brown. It nests on the ground which immediately places it and its offspring at risk from predators and so the four or five newly-hatched chicks depend upon their camouflage for safety – it can be up to three weeks before they learn to fly. I have heard reports that the skylark population is decreasing due to foxes and even ramblers with dogs roaming across their nesting sites.

A once-common Yorkshire word for the skylark is lavrock which comes from the Old Norse laevirke. It has fallen into disuse now although the name might occur on some old farmsteads or houses in isolated places around the dales and moors.