Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Mutation of Thrushes

This weekend there’s a hint of spring in the air. The sun is shining and birds are singing – albeit from bare branches. So in this series of posts about unusual collective terms, it seemed appropriate to write about birds.
A song thrush
A Mutation of Thrushes

With their fawn-coloured speckled breasts, thrushes are such pretty birds. It seems odd then that the correct term for a group of thrushes is a ‘mutation’. This term goes back to a belief held in ancient Roman and Greek empires, which was still current in the middle ages – and even later.
“It’s a recognized fact amongst naturalists that thrushes acquire new legs, and cast of the old one when about ten years old.”
Letter to Science Gossip, published in the 1800s.

Perhaps it was this rather strange idea, or that thrushes moult and adopt thicker feathers for winter, which inspired the intriguing ‘mutation of thrushes’.

A wren

A Herd of Wrens

The collective term for that jolly little bird, the wren, is altogether more evocative of larger animals. However, ‘A herd of wrens’ is most likely derived from an ancient fable that was known to Aristotle and Pliny.

In the story the birds hold a meeting to decide who should be king of all the birds. They all agree the winner will be the bird who can fly the highest. The eagle flies much higher than all the others and jubilantly shouts, “I am king”, at which point the wren who had stowed away beneath his wing, pops out and flutters higher. The birds then agree that despite his small size, the wren’s ingenuity and daring do indeed make him worthy of the title- king of the birds.

The word ‘herd’ in the medieval context, was derived from the term for a group of male red deer – those considered king of the deer and most prized by royalty.

A turtle  dove

A Pitying of Turtle Doves

And finally, a pitying of turtle doves. This term first appears in a 15th century manuscript and relates to the association between turtle doves and sorrow. In turn this probably came about because of the birds’ plaintive  “Woo-woo” cry.

Prior to this, in the 14th century, the Book of St Albans refers to a ‘dule of doves’ – where the word dule came from the Latin, dolere, to mean sorry of grief.

However, if you’re a glass half full type of person, there is another term – ‘a truelove of turtle doves’, which reflects that these birds chose one mate and remain devoted to each other for life. 


  1. This was a lovely post. On a regular basis, we have "a truelove of turtle doves" in our backyard. They really are so sweet. We watched one pair nest and take care of two offspring one spring.

  2. Thank you for visiting, Elizabeth. I see you are a 'half full' person :-)
    G x

  3. I found this post by Googling the phrase "thrushes acquire new legs," having seen it in the book An Exaltation of Larks. This search also turns up the original Science Gossip issue you cite, wherein there is actually a follow-up letter providing a possible explanation for this bizarre myth: (Search within for "thrushes" to see both entries).
    "I have found that it is not an unusual occurrence to see thrushes, blackbirds, larks, and many others, after being confined some years in a cage, with their legs deformed in the manner I am about to describe. From some cause—want of the necessary food or exercise—the scales of the legs increase to a prodigious size, often being five or six times as large as the ordinary legs, and taking a downward growth, frequently overhang the feet, and in some instances prevent the bird from standing upon a level surface. These scales becoming extremely dry, they are by the slightest accident detached from the leg as far as the knee joint; the scales at that part being smaller, and the skins more flexible, allow the mass of scales, still retaining the shape of the original legs, to remain suspended. The legs after being divested of their old scales, appear extremely thin, and quite pale; and to any person that does not make such an examination as they should, but arrive at a hasty conclusion that the bird has four legs, and that the cast-off scales, which are so much the largest, must be the old legs, are very likely to be deceived themselves, and misguide others."
    I've also heard that ducklings shed the skin of their feet, and sometimes domestic parrots get dry flaky skin as well.

    Great post, and I love the lolcat pictures! Especially the peacock one.


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