Why is a group of loons called an ‘asylum’? It might be the Monitor’s doing

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    The entry of loons from "Asylum of Loons", a book about various collective nouns for types of birds. Adventure Publications—Courtesy

  • 2019: I’m holding a banded loon chick about to be released Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 2009: I just finished deploying a sign to protect a loon pair brooding their chicks on Lake Winnipesaukee Vin Spagnuolo—Courtesy

  • Vin Spagnuolo holds a banded loon chick about to be released. Spagnuolo used the term for the first time in a 2010 article. “Just in the past couple of years, I’ve started to see ‘asylum of loons’ around,” he says.

  • A loon with a chick on its back makes its way across Pierce Pond near North New Portland, Maine. AP file

  • This common loon, with its distinctive red eyes, dives for fish on the Quabbin Reservoir in New Salem. Paul Franz

  • The book “An Asylum of Loons” gives the following background on the iconic bird: “(The loon’s distinctive) call, when paired with their erratic behavior when escaping danger, inspired the common phrase ‘crazy as a loon,’ which in turn gave us the collective noun ‘asylum.’ ” Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 9/29/2019 9:44:46 AM

Back in July 2010, the Monitor was doing a story about loon conservation on Lake Winnipesaukee when reporter Madeline Buckley asked Loon Preservation Committee biologist Vincent Spagnuolo what to call a group of these lovely water birds.

“Usually you don’t refer to groups of loons that often, because they’re highly territorial and you don’t see them in groups much,” Spagnuolo recalled this week. “I jokingly said ‘an asylum.’ ”

“I had come up with that collective noun the year before and thought it was better than a ‘raft,’ a ‘cry,’ or whatever else was used at the time. Having seen some of the things they do, which are often kind of crazy – getting into fights and in the process kill one other, and sometimes swim in weird formations in post-breeding season – it seemed appropriate.”

Buckley obviously liked the term because near the end of her story she wrote: “There isn’t an official name for a group of loons, like a murder of crows or a pride of lions, but Spagnuolo said he affectionately refers to a group as ‘an asylum of loons’ because they ‘do crazy stuff’ when they’re together.”

Fast forward almost a decade.

“Just in the past couple of years, I’ve started to see “asylum of loons” around. There will be websites saying what’s the collective noun for flamingos, crows, other birds,” Spagnuolo said.

Then earlier this year the editors at Adventure Publications, a Minnesota publisher of nature and outdoor books, put out a lovely book about some interesting name for groups of bird species.

Its title? An Asylum of Loons: Charming Names from the Bird World.

“I am doing loon research out West. I’ve got a crew of young biologists working for me, all 21 to 25 years of age. They saw the book and were saying, ‘that’s such a cool collective noun for them, who thought of it?’ I said, ‘you’re looking at him – yours truly!’ They didn’t believe it,” Spanguolo said.

What about that. Is the popularity of the term really Spagnuolo’s doing with the Monitor’s help? It’s hard to know for certain but that’s plausible, he said.

“I looked around to see if I could find any written reference to ‘asylum of loons’ prior to 2010, and I haven’t been able to find anything. So yes, that article might be the first time it ever got into print,” he said.

Spagnuolo is quick to say, however, that he didn’t originate the term. John Cooley, head biologist at the Loon Preservation Committee, agrees that the term was sometimes used long before the Monitor article, although he added, “Vin really promoted it.”

The book An Asylum of Loons gives this background: “(The loon’s distinctive) call, when paired with their erratic behavior when escaping danger, inspired the common phrase ‘crazy as a loon,’ which in turn gave us the collective noun ‘asylum.’ ”

It also says that “asylum” is sometimes used for a group of cuckoos, a bird named for its call rather than its behavior. “The use of ‘cuckoo’ as an American slang description of a ‘crazy person’ didn’t occur until the 1920s, so ‘asylum’ as a collective noun was created much later,” the book says.

An Asylum of Loons makes it clear that these terms aren’t official. There’s no overriding body of wildlife biologists declaring that a group of swifts must be called “a swoop” or a group of ptarmigans, famous for their camouflage, must be called “an invisibleness” – both of which are terms listed in the book. The whole process is more fun than formal.

And as for “asylum of loons,” don’t expect to hear it much, even if it is fun to say.

“It’s not something that we’ve commonly used,” said Bette Ruyffelaert, assistant manager of the LPC center in Moultonborough.

But if you do hear it, you know who to credit. Or, maybe, blame.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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