Animal collective nouns

Discover some of the more unusual collective names for different groups of animals, from ‘a bloat of hippopotamuses’ to ‘a confusion of wildebeest’.

Mountain gorillas resting in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.

You may have heard of ‘a school of fish’, ‘a pride of lions’ or ‘a pack of wolves’, but have you ever come across ‘a shrewdness of apes’ or ‘a confusion of wildebeest’? In this article, author and investigator of languages and interesting words Adam Jacot de Boinod takes a look at some of the more unfamiliar animal collective nouns.


What is a collective noun?

A collective noun is a countable noun that refers to a group of people or things. There are various animal collective nouns that you’re probably already familiar with such as ‘a flock of sheep’ or ‘swarm of bees’, but there are also an astonishing number of intriguing animal collective nouns that you may not have heard of before.

Collective nouns for different groups of animals:

A murder of crows

Crows gather in a public park.
Crows gather in a public park. © P Derrett/iStock/Getty

The term ‘a murder of crows’ probably derives from 15th-century peasants’ fears that these sinister-looking birds, with dark feathers and jet-black eyes, were witches in disguise or messengers of the Devil. They descended onto battlefields to pick at the fallen and, with their alleged prophetic powers, they appeared on roofs to portend that someone inside would soon die. Their other collective nouns include ‘mob’, ‘parcel’ and ‘horde’.

A confusion of wildebeest

A herd of wildebeest.
Wildebeest follow the seasonal rains. © Lennart van den Berg/Getty

The term ‘a confusion of wildebeest’ is so-called from the noise and disorientation of these animals when they gather for their giant migration, when around two million of them unite to search for greener areas. In the process many die in stampedes, which typically feature 500 wildebeest travelling at speeds of up to 50mph and which can last for 30 minutes: chaos ensues when they dash through treacherous waters, as they fall prey to predators.

A gaggle of geese

Geese on grassy field.
Geese gather on a grassy field. © Dave Smith/EyeEm/Getty

The term ‘a gaggle of geese’ has been so-called since the 15th century because when they get together they get quite noisy and rowdy. It’s only when they’re on the ground that they come in ‘gaggles’; their other collective nouns depend on whether they’ve gathered on water ‘plump’ or flying (‘skein’, ‘team’ or ‘wedge’): the latter two reflecting their graceful travelling en masse.

A bloat of hippopotamuses

Hippos, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hippos, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. © DeAgostini/Getty

The term ‘a bloat of hippopotamuses’, coined in 1939, comes from their large, indeed bloated bellies; a male hippo weighs around 8,000lb and is covered in subcutaneous fat that helps him float. Their stomachs are typically bloated from a diet almost exclusively of grass which they ingest and store for up to three weeks. A typical ‘bloat’ would consist of one male hippo amongst 10-20 females.

A shrewdness of apes 

Mountain gorillas resting in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas resting in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda. © Alamy

The term ‘a shrewdness of apes’ was coined in 1486, at a time when scientists wouldn’t have attributed to apes the cognitive ability we now recognise in their brains and habits. ‘Shrewdness’ around the time of the 15th century meant wickedness and came from a sense of playfulness and mischief. However, today it denotes intelligence and astuteness. So, by a stroke of linguistic luck, the phrase has maintained its currency.