Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A "Gang" of Elk?

They're calling us what?
(Photo courtesy Charlie Cropp)
A link recently popped up on my TweetDeck titled Ten Things That Might Surprise You About Elk. Elk are amazing creatures and have all sorts of unique characteristics so, given that I work for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, I was a bit intrigued.

Once I started to skim over the list I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t really that surprised. Though nothing close to any kind of wildlife biologist, I do know a little something about elk. In fact, much of what I learned comes from one of the best online sources of elk biology—just click on the Elk Facts link on RMEF’s website, www.rmef.org

Back to the list. Near the bottom of it something surprising did jump out at me. Or should I say it snuck up on me like, well…this is what it stated: 

“You think you see a bunch of elk? No, you see a gang of elk.
Their group name is gang. How cool is that?”

Gang? A gang of elk? A herd of elk, sure I’ve heard of that. Or say...50-head of elk, I’ve heard folks refer to a group of elk in that manner too. But a gang of elk? I needed to get to the bottom of this. 

A massive gang of elk? (Photo courtesy Rapid City Journal)

So what does one do when he or she needs instant information? Hello Google! I typed in “What do you call a group of elk?” What I found surprised me. 

The very first link from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, one of 18 science and technology centers in the Biological Resources Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered a list of animal congregations (see table below). And there it was located between elephants and ferrets at the number 12 slot: Elk = a gang

So does that mean we should refer to a bachelor group of elk as a gang of elk? I wasn’t satisfied. I visited the offices of our Bugle magazine staffers. Between the four of them, they have more than six and a half decades of experience researching and writing about wild wapiti. 

“Have you ever heard of a gang of elk?” I inquired of one of them. “No, but I like the sound of that,” came the answer in return. It turns out not one of them had ever heard of the word gang when referring to a group of elk.

A bachelor gang? (Photo courtesy Nancy Leja)
I then headed down the RMEF headquarters hallway to chat with our director of science planning. He is a man who spent more than a quarter century as a biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department before coming to RMEF. On top of that, he was based in Jackson which is home to the National Elk Refuge, a place where hundreds if not more than a thousand elk spend their winter months. He knows more about elk, especially from an up-close and hands-on biological perspective, than anybody I know. His response? “No, never heard of that,” and he chuckled as he answered.

Another RMEF staffer pointed me in the direction of what may be the genesis of the great elk gang debate. Apparently, according to Wikipedia anyway, “the best known source of many of the bizarre words used for collective groupings of animals is The Book of Saint Albans, an essay on hunting published in 1486.” That’s 528 years ago!

Many of the terms of venery (with venery as an ancient word for hunting) or groupings’ names are interesting and creative, but not scientific. Some of them are down-right humorous. Below are some of my favorites:

Animal               Collective Noun

Antelope              tribe
Ape                      shrewdness
Bear                     sloth
Bison                    obstinancy
Cat                       cluster
Crocodile             congregation
Giraffe                  tower
Gnu                      implausibility
Hyena                   cackle
Octopus                consortium
Owl                       parliament
Penguin                waddle
Starling                 murmuration
Tiger                     ambush
Wildcat                 destruction

Interestingly enough, among those species not mentioned on this specific list is the crow. The collective name for a group of crows is a flock or a murder. But back to our quest. 

Other species given the collective group name of gang include bison, weasels and turkeys. I still don’t think gang scientifically applies as the correct word for a group of elk but I believe, if not scientifically then at least realistically according to my experience, it most definitely applies for one particular species. 

A gang of grouse?
The collective names I researched for grouse include pack, brood or even thunder, however gang most definitely applies. Any elk hunter must certainly agree. After all, how many times have you had just about every sense –sight, sound and smell while also monitoring the breeze– on high alert as you slowly and stealthily make your way through the silence of the woods or along a calm forested mountain ridgeline and, ostensibly out of nowhere, a grouse explodes from beneath your feet and flies into the air? Scare…me…to…DEATH! It’s happened too many times. My heart rate immediately spikes and each time I wonder how many minutes or hours or months such scary encounters shaved off my life. That’s my gang-related reaction to a solitary or a group of grouse.

So is it a gang or is it a herd? I guess you can call a group of elk whatever you’d like. I call elk many things—majestic, regal and elusive are a few terms that immediately come to mind. And if I’m fortunate in the field this fall, I’ll place one in the freezer and then I’ll call it dinner.

Mark Holyoak
RMEF Director of Communication

Photo courtesy Don Detrick

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