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A Parliament of Owls

Bill Meredith

"…for every collection of beasts of the forest, and for every gathering of birds of the air, there is their own private name, so that none may be confused with another." Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir NigeI, 1906.

Ordinarily, February is not a particularly good month for watching birds, but this year was different. On the 13th of the month a Northern Lapwing was seen near Thurmont. This is a bird that normally lives in Asia and Europe, and had been seen previously in the U. S. only 22 times, so the news went out on the internet and birders from all over the country immediately headed this way. I got there too late. Among 23 other birders and several thousand dollars worth of binoculars and telescopes, I stood for two hours in the field where the bird had been seen the day before; on my right was a man from Carlisle and on my left, one from South Carolina… but the Lapwing had moved on. However, the day wasn't a total loss; the first meadowlarks of the year were singing in the corner of the field, and better yet, several dozen horned larks were scurrying about among the emerging winter wheat. As I watched them, I was reminded of one of the oddest books that I own.

The title of the book is An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton. It is not the kind of book you would sit down to read; rather, it is the kind you start leafing through at random, and suddenly look up to find that an hour has passed. The text consists of a collection of names for groups of things, accompanied by drawings that look as if they might have been done by the same guy who illustrated Alice in Wonderland. Most of the names are for groups of animals, and according to Lipton, they originated from the fact that in Merrie Olde England young gentlemen were expected to know the group names of creatures they were likely to encounter when hunting. Some of them are familiar; everyone has heard of a school of fish, a pride of lions, or a gaggle of geese. The name in the book's title is a bit less familiar, but logical in derivation; everyone has heard the expression, "happy as a lark," and exaltation is defined as a state of exhilaration or extreme happiness. Hence, if one lark is happy, a whole bunch of larks would have to be an exaltation; and that was the emotion I felt, standing in the field watching them.

I hadn't looked at this book for years, so when I got home I took it down and started browsing through it. Once opened, it's hard to put down. Some of the names are no longer used; nowadays you never hear of a skulk of foxes or a murder of crows. Some applied to people; among the more inventive were an impatience of wives, a prudence of vicars, and a sentence of judges. Toward the end of the book, Lipton gets carried away and invents a few modern groups such as a glut of commercials, an obsolescence of appliances and a hive of allergists. But the group that caught my eye was a parliament of owls. I had seen such a group just a week earlier.

Everyone who has lived in the country knows we have four common species of owls around here. The great horned owl and barred owl are large, predaceous birds which hoot loudly as they hunt; the screech owl is much smaller, but equally noisy. The barn owl doesn't hoot, but it is familiar to country folk because it regularly nests in barns and outbuildings. All four species are solitary and hunt at night.

It is less well known that 15 other species of owls are native to North America, and several of these visit us in the winter. Of these visitors, the short-eared owl is the commonest; from its home in northern Canada, it migrates as far south as the Carolinas each winter. It is nearly as big as a barn owl, with a body about 16 inches long and a wingspan of nearly 40 inches. But it breaks many of the rules of owldom; unlike our resident owls, it often sleeps on the ground in groups, and also may nest in groups in the Canadian tundra. Because the summer nights are so short in those latitudes, these owls commonly hunt during the day, especially in the morning and evening hours.

Several years ago, members of the Gettysburg Audubon Society found that short-eared owls regularly stop to spend the winter in fields south of the Battlefield, and I have seen them there in each of the past four years. Usually there are only a few, but this year there were more than usual, so one evening I took my wife and Ruth Richards to look for them. We parked along the road by the field where they had been seen and waited. Fifteen minutes passed and my wife's patience was beginning to wane, when suddenly, as if they had been ejected from a volcano, owls rose from the field and started buzzing around like a swarm of giant gnats. Buzzing may not be the right word, for their flight is silent, but that was the effect they produced. We counted 27, but more kept coming and they zoomed about so rapidly that we lost count. It was indeed a parliament of owls, and it was the most spectacular sight I have seen in years.

They must have spent the day sleeping on the ground, hidden among tufts of grass and weeds, as they do in their Canadian home. Evidently their biological alarm clocks all went off at the same time, and they woke up hungry. Once in the air, they immediately began to hunt; we saw several drop to the ground to catch field mice. They gradually dispersed into the surrounding fields, flapping lazily like giant moths; some hunted by gliding along a few feet above the ground, and others perched on fence posts or small trees to scan about for prey.

I don't know how a group of owls came to be called a parliament, but it is interesting to speculate. In ancient times, owls were the symbol of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and I imagine 13th Century Englishmen thought wisdom would be a desirable quality for a parliament to have. These owls, however, have a ring of black feathers around their eyes and black "eyebrow" marks that give them a look of bewilderment… which, come to think of it, seems to be a good description of the usual state of things in parliaments around the world.

So February, 2005, will go into my record book as the first month in which I saw both a parliament of owls and an exaltation of larks. It would have been nice to see the lapwing too, but since I didn't see it, at least I can be glad there was not more than one of them. A group of lapwings is called a deceit, and we all can do without that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith