22 August 2014
Collective nouns for birds have existed since at least the mid fifteenth century. They are thought to originate in texts about hunting, but have since evolved into evocative, witty and literary expressions, each striving to capture the very essence of the creature they describe.
The best of these imaginative expressions are collected in this new book by Bodleian Library Publishing, illustrated with evocative woodcuts by Thomas Bewick, the renowned naturalist engraver of the eighteenth century.
Some are portentous – 'a mischief of magpies' perfectly evokes this bird – others convey sound, such as 'a murmuration of starlings' or 'a chattering of choughs'. Yet more reflect with a flourish the beauty of the bird itself: what could be more celebratory than 'a crown of kingfishers', or 'an exaltation of larks'?
In his foreword, Bill Oddie discusses the origins of collective nouns and their idiosyncrasies, and expounds on the joy of Bewick's illustrations: 'The text of this book will amuse and bemuse, but the illustrations will delight … they are still peerless, both as an aid to identification and as art. How about a treasure house of Bewicks?'
Featuring songbirds, aquatic birds, birds of prey and garden favourites, this beautifully presented book will charm both bird-lovers and word-lovers in equal measure.