I found this link to names of the groups of animals. I am confused because there are so many various congregations. Is there any guidance rather than learning by rote if I want to remember them?
Most of the group names on that list aren't general knowledge or in everyday use.
If you want an even longer list that includes the terms for the male and female members of the species along with the name for the young and groups, check this out. Many of these aren't general knowledge, either.
Even for animals we talk about a lot, the average person wouldn't know to call a group of cats a clowder.
There are a few that most people know, and a few general-purpose terms that can be used if necessary.
Herd - Useful for most hooved and/or grazing mammals: Cattle, sheep, horses, goats etc. But also elephants, giraffes, hippos.
Litter - Generally used for birth groups of small mammals: Kittens, piglets, puppies etc.
Colony - Used for mostly some insects (ants, termites), bats, penguins, and rabbits.
Swarm - Used for flying insects.
Flock - Used for all birds, regardless of whether in flight or on the ground. Also commonly used for sheep and goats.
Pod - Used for groups of sea mammals: dolphins, whales, seals.
School - Used for groups of fish.
These are a good starter list. There are a few others that many people know that are specific to a particular sort of animal:
Pride - Used for lions.
Pack - Used for wolves and sometimes dogs.
Hive - Used for bees.
When in doubt, use something generic like bunch or even group. That's a whole bunch of sheep. That is a nice group of tigers.
Hope this helps!
As others have mentioned, most of the odd-sounding collective nouns derive from a hunting tradition. However, many of them are much more recent inventions, and are meant to be whimsical. This is apparently a long-standing tradition, as the Book of St Albans (AD 1486) has some that are clearly not hunters' tradition!
There is nothing predictable about them, and indeed most of them are not used widely... or used at all outside of the imagination of the person who came up with them. I'm not a biologist, but I'm quite sure that they are not scientific terms (as some have said), and that scientists would only use the common ones, or (scientists being as whimsical as anyone) ones that they deliberately adopted for the fun of it.
It should be said that even those that aren't used may be widely known, simply because lists of these words are popular in works of trivia. For example, it's generally known that a flock of crows is called a "murder"... but I don't remember ever hearing anyone use outside of discussing trivia. In everyday use, I would say (and expect to hear) "flock".
Ones that are used and hence worth knowing for more than just trivia's sake:
- A flock of birds
- A school of fish
- A swarm of insects
- A pride of lions
- A herd of livestock or other animals in general (especially land mammals)
- A flock of sheep
- A pod of whales or other cetaceans (and seals?)
- A pack of wolves or other animals that hunt in groups
There are definitely others that are used (mob of kangaroos, troop of baboons or other primates, colony of social animals, nest of insects or birds), but you can communicate just fine without ever using them, and if you hear them you can often work them out from context.
Source: my own anecdotal knowledge, and Wikipedia.
In direct answer to your direct question: no, there is no way to learn them other than by memorizing them. Of course, as has been mentioned, most of the terms which are intimidating you are simply not in wide use, so you really only need to learn a few.
As has been mentioned, the earliest compilation of collective nouns is "The Book of St. Albans" (which was the third book printed in English - I know the Bible was first, but I don't know the second, so don't bother asking), but a really excellent modern book on the subject is James Lipton's "An Exaltation of Larks". At the beginning of the book, he argues that knowing collective nouns of game animals was a status issue among the gentry of the time, and this may have contributed to the proliferation of these terms. Inventing new terms for different animals made the subject more difficult for the uninitiated. It is also true that some collective nouns were inspired by the attributes attributed to the animal's behavior: pride of lions, exaltation of larks (from their song), parliament of owls, murmuration of starlings (from the sound of a flock), ostentation of peacocks, etc. Some terms made sense at the time of formation, but the connection has been lost with changes in usage: "host" refers both to angels and armed men, but nowadays angels have lost their martial connotations and made far less fearsome than they used to be. In at least one case, the usage appears to be an error caused by a scribe: school of fish was not inspired by the fish all facing in one direction, like students in a classroom, but by miscopying the original term, "shoal of fish" which describes their appearance in the water.
As Lipton points out, one of the interesting aspects of English is that anybody can invent a word, and if it becomes widely used it will be recognized as "proper". So the invention of collective nouns can become an exercise in humor, or judgement, or various other attributes. "An abominable sight of monks" is clearly the latter. Lipton also recounts the joke of a number British academics responding to the presence of several prostitutes: "a jam of tarts", "a flourish of strumpets" and "an essay of trollops". And, since anyone can do it, Lipton puts forth a few suggestions of his own. "A wobble of bicycles" is my favorite.
Those are called terms of venery and they come from English hunting tradition.
In hunters community, referring the groups of specific animals, or specific formations of animals was so common that they've got their unique names.
The need to have so many words for 'herd' may be confusing for modern city dwellers, as well as the need to have various words for 'snow' may be confusing for someone who lives in Mexico. And because of the nature of the language evolution, there's no 'logical rule' to learn them, just like there's no logical rule for modern teenagers' slang.
For an extended list of terms of venery, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_terms_of_venery,_by_animal
For a little background see for example here: http://rodchu.blogspot.de/2009/05/collective-nouns-terms-of-venery.html
And there are many questions on EL&U about terms of venery: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/terms-of-venery