Some decades ago the American poet and producer James Lipton revived interest in an old word tradition—giving fanciful names to groups of animals. An Exaltation of Larks explored how English hunters and word lovers in the fifteenth century pursued with imagination the collective names for the beasts they pursued in the woods with bow and arrow. Most of their terms died out as markers of class—intended to be used to show off superior breeding—while a few slipped into common usage; today we still speak of a “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” as well as a “school of fish.” Lipton introduced readers to many more. A “richness of martens,” a “murder of crows,” and “an unkindness of ravens” show feelings both positive and negative projected onto animals while a “tower of giraffes” and an “ostentation of peacocks” play with appearance. And then there are the nouns suggesting behavior, by far the largest group: a “skulk of foxes,” a “leap of leopards,” a “murmuration of starlings.”
Recently, during some way-too-busy weeks of an overwhelming workload and too many unknowns looming, I slipped away one sunny morning to the Boulder reservoir, hoping to see eagles. Bald eagles begin nesting here in February, and although the reservoir this year was still capped with a solid lid of ice, I hoped perhaps the eagles would perch nearby even if they would not likely find a decent breakfast between its shores.
I parked near the reservoir and began hiking. The lake was blinding white. No dark hulks loomed in the cottonwoods along the shore. I remembered again how much fun it is to bird in winter when the trees have no leaves and the great perching birds may be visible for nearly a mile. Enjoying the bright sun and clear blue sky—we’ve had less than usual of it in recent weeks—I kept walking, periodically scanning the trees with binoculars.
A half mile or so into the hike I saw what might be a dark spot in a faraway cottonwood. Double-checking through the glasses, I saw a dark shape with a white head and a white tail. And yowze! A second one perched in the same tree!
I drew closer. Okay, I had to cross a fence or two and trespass into a muddy cattle pasture, but I ended up about thirty yards away from the tree. I sank down carefully between cow pies.
The sun warmed my back; the sky was open and blue. My cell phone was off; no one could interrupt me here. I sat with the eagles, appreciating.
After some minutes the one on the right lifted off and drifted lazily toward a cottonwood farther away. The other, consenting to my presence, remained in place. We watched—the eagle training sharp eyes on prairie dogs, trespassing human, and faraway cattle, and me gazing back wide-eyed through binoculars. I memorized each detail of riffing feather, golden claw, and blazing eye.
After about twenty minutes this eagle too shifted from foot to foot, flexed its wings, spread them wide, and stepped into air.
I sat for a few more minutes, smiling. Then I got up, stretched, and retraced my steps to the car. I was breathing more deeply. The sky seemed even bluer, the morning more graced.
I have my own collective noun to add to the centuries-old list: a “peace of eagles.”