Owls are usually seen alone or in pairs, but what is a group of owls called? Collective nouns or terms of venery as they are often known, are those quirky and sometimes peculiar names for groups of animals. Many of these terms date back to the Late Middle Ages, a time when handbooks were published for nobility, and saying or doing the wrong thing at court could be social suicide.
And although most are nothing more than a remnant of medieval whimsy, many persist in modern language for their usefulness and flair alike, holding a special place in the literature (1). Read on to discover the terms used for a group of owls and a short history of collective nouns.
What is a group of owls called?
A group of owls is called a parliament.
It’s unclear where the term first originated, but a group of owls is known as a Parliament or Congress, and less commonly a stare. Most animal group terms or terms of venery can be traced back to Books of Courtesy – manuals for nobles on aspects of noble living, including guidelines on what to say (2).
Owls, long associated with knowledge and wisdom, are most often known as a Parliament. Although rarely seen in a group, this poetic description was widely spread by a children’s book published in the 1950s called The Chronicles of Narnia (3). In it, the author describes a group of owls is a parliament of owls and, with the book’s popularity, sealed their fate in popular culture and literature alike.
When is a flock of owls a parliament and how many does it take to make one? Presumably, this term came about because of their association with wisdom knowledge.
In Ancient Greece, owls were a symbol of higher wisdom and associated with Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Strategy. And while there are no set numbers for what determines a parliament of owls, since these birds rarely congregate in large groups, smaller numbers are considered special and would be referred to as a parliament or congress.
Also read: How to Attract Owls to Your Backyard
Why is it called a parliament of owls?
Whether through pop culture, or more lasting references like beloved children’s books, owls have long been associated with wisdom and knowledge. In Greek mythology, an owl helped Athena, the god of Wisdom and Strategy, see the truth and thus became a symbol of higher wisdom and guardians of the Acropolis (4).
In Winnie the Pooh, the character Owl is based on the ‘wise old owl’ trope (5). And although he may often miss the mark in that story, owls have long been regarded with fascination and awe for their seemingly all-knowing ways. Myths and legends around the world cast owls as a source of spiritual and intellectual wisdom, but since these terms have their origins in the British and French aristocracy, it’s no surprise then that a group of owls, a bird that hoots, came to be known as a parliament.
The Parliament is the legislature of Great Britain and presumably a place where many politicians can be seen hooting and hollering in political debate and discussion (6). While the exact reason for this term may not be known, our penchant for wordplay never really goes out of style, and thus the term has persisted in both literature and pop culture alike.
Terms of venery and collective nouns
A delightful quirk of the English language, terms of venery, or nouns of the collection as they are also known, are essentially linguistic leftovers from the Late Middle Ages. Many names for groups of animals were first recorded in specially published books for nobility, on the various aspects of noble life, specifically hunting. These books were designed as manuals to instruct young aristocrats on social graces and activities, without embarrassing them.
One of the most influential in surviving, The Book of Saint Albans, is credited with the first appearance of terms of venery (a medieval term for hunting). Among such useful hunting terms as a gaggle of geese and an exaltation of larks, you can also find the wisdom of wombats and a crash of rhinos. Through the course of courtly fashion and the language naturally extending, collective nouns were perpetuated long after their usefulness and introduction.
Although originally relating to venery (hunting), lists came to include human groups and professions and were known to have a nature of humor to them, regardless of practical application. Terms of venery and collective nouns often carry an element of whimsy that denies their practical beginnings, not to mention that many animals on the list do not congregate in the wild (i.e., wombats).
What is a group of birds called?
Whether you call a group of owls a parliament or a group of crows a murder, there are many other words to describe a congregation of birds. While most of us are familiar with the term flock, lesser-known terms include colony, fleet, or cloud to indicate a large group of birds. Not every group of birds is automatically considered a flock – that depends on both numbers and composition of the group.
Although there is no set minimum, large groups of birds are generally known as flocks (regardless of species), whereas single-species flocks are denoted by more unique, specialized terms rooted in both creativity and function (7). For instance, birds of prey such as hawks and falcons in a group are known as a cast, cauldron, or kettle, whereas more domesticated flocks are known as a gaggle or herd as in the case of geese and ducks.
Adding to the confusion, or perhaps enlightening it, some birds even have different names for groups depending on the activity. Geese found on land would be referred to as a gaggle, whereas a group of geese seen flying is often referred to as a skein or wedge depending on the formation.
Although collective nouns for birds can be a bit of fun and linguistic trivia, you won’t find many in common conversation today. What once started as a bit of whimsy and superstition, has developed into nothing more than a unique and distinctive feature of the language and humorous lingo amongst those who know their origins.