Over the million years of teaching English to adult Germans, what most surprised me was how interested they were in learning things which were absolutely pointless. One of my biggest successes was teaching them the vocabulary ‘Haberdashery shop’. They loved it, and even worse, remembered it! I don’t suppose any of them had ever been in such a shop, if they even still exist, and I seriously doubt they would ever need any haberdashery products.

It was the same with idioms (Raining cats and dogs was very popular, only topped by in a nutshell) and, weirdest of all, names for groups of animals. No, I don’t know either.

I thought of that this week when I heard the shocking news that one of the ravens from the Tower of London has gone missing. This is indeed worrying, as legend has it that when the ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall! Ever since the reign of King Charles II (my favourite King, by the way), six ravens have been resident in the Tower, with a seventh as a spare just in case.

The ravens | Tower of London | Historic Royal Palaces (hrp.org.uk)

The word for a group of ravens is an ‘Unkindness’. They do look a bit mean, don’t they? It’s thought this comes from the idea that they, the ravens, were not good parents and threw their fledglings out of their nests too soon.

My favourite word for a group of birds is ‘Skein’, as in a skein of geese: this apparently comes from Old French escaigne, meaning a piece of yarn resembling the ‘v’ shape of geese flying high in the sky.

When geese are on the ground they would be called a ‘gaggle’, from the sounds they make when alarmed.

This week, another bird was in the news. This one was all by itself and surprisingly and unexpectedly ended up in Australia:

A few years ago, a racing pigeon turned up in our garden. It was obviously worn out and not well, so we called the local pigeon fancier club and an official came around. He was unable to catch the pigeon, it was always just a few steps in front of all of us, but left us some special strengthening pigeon food and told us it would fly home again when well enough.

The pigeon (we called it ‘Bernice’) stayed with us for a few days and was then gone. We missed her.

Why we called our pigeon Bernice

This week we will again be taking part in Germany’s ‘Wild bird hour’,

Stunde der Wintervögel 2021 – Bundesweite Mitmachaktion – NABU

counting the number and types of wild birds we see in our garden, and trying not to cheat this year.

Some years ago a competition was organised in the UK to choose Britain’s National Bird. In 3rd place was the blackbird, 2nd the Barn Owl, and at No 1 was…

No surprises there!

Header photo: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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