Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sacrifice of Buntings

Last spring lazuli buntings visited my yard and they were spectacular. Their intense blue feathers, set off by a bib of rich bronze, transformed them into flying jewels. A year ago, I wrote about them:

"In the past few days I have been blessed to watch brilliant lazuli buntings peck good seed from my feeders and drink clean water from my bird baths. I am sorry if you have never seen a lazuli bunting up close. They are stunning: tropical turquoise, coral, and white dress these sweet finches. Their flash of blue through the garden is absolutely hypnotic. I've stationed myself at windows, perched myself on a futon in the sunroom, peered from behind living room drapes, just so I could gaze at these gorgeous birds."

This year is different. This year I'm enduring birder envy, as a dear friend a couple miles away is posting pictures of the eleven lazuli buntings visiting her yard and I am seeing none in mine. I find myself sitting in the sunroom while knitting, glancing up between stitches to see if any are at the small feeder or splashing in the birdbath. None. I move to the kitchen and spy to see if any are perched at the large feeder. None. The giddy antics of American goldfinches are delightful to watch, as they fly a roller coaster track through the yard and hang their beautiful yellow selves upside down on the thistle feeder. Beautiful. But they are not lazuli buntings.

My lucky friend who's hosting eleven buntings gave me a valuable tip: she said that a collection of buntings has been labeled a decoration, a mural, and a sacrifice. How wonderful and mysterious to have such vivid collective nouns for these gorgeous birds! Who makes these terms up? Who decides which labels will stick?

I did some study and found verbal delights. Some collective bird nouns are very apt. For example, a group of starlings is called a chattering or a murmuration; a group of geese in flight is called a wedge and that same group on water is called a gaggle. Jays gathered together are called a party and chickens, a peep. A group of turtle doves is called a pitying. These terms make sense.

Some collective bird nouns are lyrical and lovely. Have you ever seen a bouquet (of pheasants) or a charm (of hummingbirds) or a wisp (of snipes) or an exaltation (of larks)? But others are less favorable. When ravens gather, they are called an unkindness or a congress. I wouldn't want to be tagged with either label. Gathered crows are called a murder, while a group of herons is named a siege. Peacocks together are aptly called an ostentation.

Other terms I looked at didn't seem to have clear reasoning related to human views of the birds. Would you name a group of raptors a cauldron? Would you call gathering of parrots a company? Would you think that kettle is a fine label for a bunch of nighthawks? How about the word knob? Would you apply that to a group of widgeons? Not sure I understand...

I'm enchanted by these collective nouns, these group names given to birds by curious and imaginative folks over hundreds of years. And I am ever so grateful for the lazuli bunting, whose presence in my birder friend's yard spurred her to share bird words, which started this linguistic quest. I think I'll step outside now and scan the yard for a sacrifice of buntings.

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