Proposal (145) to South American Classification Committee
Change English name of A. flaviceps from "Olive-headed Brush-Finch" to "Yellow-headed Brush-Finch"
This proposal would rename Atlapetes flaviceps to remove a fundamental misconception about the appearance of this species.
Initially discovered by Chapman in the central Andes of Colombia in 1911, Atlapetes flaviceps remained an enigmatic species for 78 years. Although it remains relatively common at the type locality, the insecurity of Colombia, along with the small range have kept the species poorly known. Although I do not have access to Chapman 1914 here in Cairo, I recall seeing the illustration in it that shows a bird with a distinctly yellow head. No wonder that the Latin name, flaviceps, would have been based on the type series exhibiting yellow heads.
Apart from two specimens taken in 1942, the bird remained unknown until Dunning photographed one several hundred miles south of the type locality. Dunning's photograph (which appears to me to be a bit underexposed) depicts a bird essentially dark above and yellow below. The head is mostly dark olive, with yellow throat, chin, malar streak, lores, eye-ring, and auricular patch. This unusual record became the gold standard for the species largely, I believe, because it was published in a widespread book.
Indeed, Ridgely and Tudor 1989 in reviewing the few extant specimens, opined that the bird might better be called the Yellow-headed Brush-Finch depending on the coloration of the adults. They note that the illustration in Chapman (1914) has an exaggeratedly yellow head, since the type specimen has an olive yellow head. The authors also note the variation in the amount and extent of the yellow and olive on the head.
The mystery was resolved when I rediscovered Atlapetes flaviceps near the type locality in the Toche Valley of Colombia in March 1989. When I first saw a small flock, the bright males reminded me of Oriole Blackbirds (Gymnomystax)! Interestingly, the first encounter I had March 20th all the birds were bright yellow and dark olive brown. My later sightings included birds that resembled the bird depicted in Dunning (1987), mixed with examples of the bold yellow-headed birds painted by Fuertes in Chapman (1914). I visited the range of the species four times, twice in March, once each in August and November or 1989, and found the birds easily each time. My observations, which were shared informally with Stiles, Salaman, Coopmans, Collar, and others, became the basis for much of the species account of Atlapetes flaviceps in the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book Collar et. al. (1992). In that account, the name was changed to Yellow-headed Brush-Finch, based, largely on my field observations in 1989.
The type locality was also studied soon after my rediscovery by several Colombian ornithologists. The results were subsequently published (see Lopez-Lanus et. al. Cotinga 14 (2000) 17-23, Threatened Birds of the rio Toche, Cordillera Central, Colombia). Atlapetes flaviceps was also encountered frequently within its small range in the Toche Valley during this study. This article also used the moniker Yellow-headed Brush-Finch, although it does not discuss why they deviated from standard references such as Meyer de Schauensee (1964, 1970) and Hilty and Brown (1986), which used Olive-headed Brush-Finch. It can only be surmised that the authors were impressed, as I was, by the appearance of the species (at least the presumed adult males) as having strikingly yellow heads.
The only other major reference that I know of that has continued the use of Yellow-headed Brush-Finch is the Threatened Birds of the World (2000).
My proposal that the bird known as Atlapetes flaviceps be called the Yellow-headed Brush-Finch is based on the original description, and recent field observations. The adult bird really does have a yellow head. Some of the birds are dramatically colored, with bright yellow under parts and head contrasting with dark back, wings and tail. How the ornithological community got off on the wrong track in the middle of the 20th century is a mystery to me. Now that the bird is known well by the few that have ventured to the Toche Valley in the Central Andes of Colombia, it is time to match up the Latin and English names by changing the English name to Yellow-headed Brush-Finch
Peter G. Kaestner
Comments from Remsen: "YES. I'm very conservative when it comes to English names, but perpetuating a conspicuous mistake crosses my threshold. Further, as Peter points out, "Yellow-headed" has already become the de facto English name in the conservation literature."
Comments from Robbins: "I vote "YES" for the proposal to call Atlapetes flaviceps the Yellow-headed Brush-Finch given that the name apparently better describes the adult of the species and the name already is widely being used."
Comments from Stiles: "YES in that the change corrects a decidedly inappropriate name."
Comments from Pacheco: "YES. Considero plenamente justificada a presente proposta em reverter o nome em InglÉs de Atlapetes flaviceps."
Comments from Jaramillo: "YES. Based on what is written the old name appears to be erroneous, and Yellow-headed has become the more accepted and used name, thereby causing less confusion for us to use Yellow-headed rather than the older Olive-headed."
Comments from Nores: "SI; estoy muy de acuerdo. Soy muy contrario a aceptar nombres comunes que hagan referencia a un color que no se corresponda con el color del ave."