Proposal (696x) to South American Classification Committee

 

Establish English names for newly split taxa in the Epinecrophylla haematonota complex

 

 

 “Option A1”: Retain “Stipple-throated” in the name to denote a monophyletic group but replace the modifiers as follows:

 

(Rio?) Napo** Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla haematonota

Rio Negro Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

(Rio?) Madeira Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla spodionota

Yasuni Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

“I think the “Rio” in front of Negro is a must for obvious reasons, but do we then have to add Rio to the others for symmetry?

 

“Option C” (from Mark P.):

 

(Rio?) Napo** Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla haematonota

Rio Negro Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

(Rio?) Madeira Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla spodionota

Yasuni Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

This would also require the following changes to other Epinecrophylla:

 

Epinecrophylla fulviventris Checker-throated Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla gutturalis
Brown-bellied Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla leucophthalma
White-eyed Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla ornata
Ornate Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla erythrura
Rufous-tailed Stipplethroat

 

[For discussion and rationale for these revised choices see original 696 below]

 

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Comments from Zimmer: “YES on Option C.  I think this option strikes a nice balance between those that want shorter names, and those that favor a cohesive group name preceded by an appropriate modifier.  "Stipplethroat" rolls off the tongue nicely, it retains the history and relationships of the group, and it is morphologically descriptive -- win/win.  It also nicely sets Epinecrophylla apart from the myriads of other "antwrens", in much the same way that "Spadebill" distinguishes Platyrinchus from other small flycatchers, or "Kittiwake" distinguishes Rissa from other small gulls.  I could go either way on the question of adding "Rio" to Madeira and Napo.  Leaving "Rio" out of those names makes them shorter still, without sacrificing any real information, but given that we would be going with "Rio Negro", it would be more symmetrical to add it to the names of haematonota and amazonica as well, while making the river drainage connection perhaps more obvious for all three species.  Put me down as a squishy vote for just "Napo Stipplethroat" and "Madeira Stipplethroat", but it wouldn't take much arm twisting to persuade me to add the "Rio" to both names.”

 

Comments solicited from Mort Isler: I support option C for reasons so clearly stated by Kevin Zimmer.  In general, I am with Bret and Steve on English names, but think option C is a good alternative on this one.  Stipplethroat should be applied to the entire clade (including fulviventris, etc.).  I would lean towards including "Rio" in all three names.”

 

**Comments solicited from Dan Lane: I” rather like the idea of using “stipplethroat” as the group name for Epinecrophylla, since "antwren" is such a dilute name, it would be refreshing to create a new name for this group rather than fall onto a ridiculously compounded name. However, the one name that gives me pause is “Napo Stipplethroat” or “Napo Stipple-throated Antwren” or whatever the final name for E. haematonota will be. Whitney et al. (2013) never actually gave a reason for the choice of this name, and it leaves me scratching my head a bit. Place names are usually awarded if the A) the taxon's type locality is honored, B) the taxon's distribution is centered on a geographic landmark or area, or C) in the case of some more recent English names for Amazonian taxa, the name reflects a center of endemism (a la Haffer or Cracraft) on which the taxon's distribution largely overlaps. The type locality of E. haematonota is Chamicuros, on the Rio Huallaga, not the Rio Napo, so A doesn't apply. B would only apply if SACC considered E. haematonota and E. fjeldsaai conspecific (as Whitney et al. 2013 did), but SACC does not--rather, E. haematonota's distribution is largely Amazonian Peru south of the Maranon. E. fjeldsaai is the taxon that occupies most of the length of the right bank of the Rio Napo (the left bank of which, I gather, is home to E. pyrrhonota, no?), whereas E. haematonota is not centered on the Napo at all. If the use of “Napo” was to denote that the taxon was of the Napo center of endemism as in my C above, this doesn’t appear to be true with the exclusion of E. fjeldsaai from that species (as presently recognized by SACC). However one cuts it, using "Napo" in the name of E. haematonota does not strike me as appropriate. Perhaps something like "Peruvian Stipplethroat" if a locality-based moniker is favored, or else “Rufous-rumped Stipplethroat” or something still linking to the translation of “haematonota” in some way would be more appropriate?"

 

Comments from Stiles: “If one must, I'd go with "Stipplethroat" as per Mark.."xx Stipplethroated Antwren" seems just too much to handle.. and if "Napo" (with ot without Rio) seems too misleading, I'd suggest red- or Rufous-backed" as a modifier - at least it's accurate, if not diagnostic!”

 

 

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Proposal (696) to South American Classification Committee

 

Establish English names for newly split taxa in the Epinecrophylla haematonota complex

 

Background: Zimmer (1932) established the "standard" taxonomy and nomenclature of the Stipple-throated Antwren (Epinecrophylla haematonota) complex. He recognized as valid two taxa (amazonica and pyrrhonota) that earlier authors (e.g., Cory and Hellmayr 1924) had considered to be junior synonyms of haematonota; and Zimmer transferred to haematonota two additional taxa (spodionota and sororia) that Cory and Hellmayr had considered to be subspecies of Epinecrophylla leucophthalma (White-eyed Antwren).

 

Subsequently, spodionota widely was recognized as a separate species (with sororia as a subspecies), following Hilty and Brown (1986), Parker and Remsen (1987), and Ridgely and Tudor (1994), and taking the English name Foothill Antwren (a slight tweak, proposed by Ridgely and Tudor, from the original "Foothills Antwren" of Parker and Remsen).

 

A closely related taxon, fjeldsaai, later was described as a new species in this complex by Krabbe et al. (1999), and took the name Brown-backed Antwren. Yet another new taxon in this complex was described as a new species, dentei, by Whitney et al. (2013). Whitney et al. (2013) further recommended recognizing both amazonica and pyrrhonota as separate species, and treating fjeldsaai as a subspecies of amazonica.

 

SACC has voted on several proposals related to Whitney et al. (2013):

 

• recognize dentei as a species (Proposal 589), which did not pass;

 

• recognize amazonica and pyrrhonota each as separate species (Proposal 589), which passed;

 

• and to classify fjeldsaai as a subspecies of amazonica (Proposal 590), which did not pass

 

Current issues: So that brings us to question of English names for amazonica and pyrrhonota, and to potential changes to the English names for haematonota, spodionota, and fjeldsaai. Whitney et al. (2013) recommended compound names for all members of the complex:

 

Napo Stipple-throated Antwren    Epinecrophylla haematonota

Negro Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

Madeira Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla spodionota

 

They did not address an English name for fjeldsaai, as they no longer considered it to be a species, but by inference, its recommended English name would be

 

Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

No doubt those names will appeal to some, but I have some objections:

 

1) These names may send the message that each of these is not a "real" species; in other words, if you think that each is a different species, then give each a different name. Using variations on "Stipple-throated Antwren" runs the risk of suggesting that these are not separate species, but are nothing more than distinctive subspecies, along the lines of field-identifiable subspecies with established English names, such as "Krider's Red-tailed Hawk" or "Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow". I think that's a risk in general with names of this form, but it's compounded in the present case by shifting views on the status of some of these taxa, such as fjeldsaai (Whitney was a co-author on the paper describing this in 1999, but by 2013 promoted treating it as a subspecies).

 

2) Compound names of this type also are overly long and clunky. A name that might work on the printed page can suffer when put into practice in a field setting. Imagine, for example, trying to call out "Madeira Stipple-throated Antwren!" while identifying out the birds present in an active mixed species flock; a name like that doesn't quite roll off the tongue. (And "Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren" would be even worse!)

There are seemingly overly long and clunky names that we've all grown up with, and with which we have no problems, such as "Black-throated Green Warbler". But I think such names work in part because they are the exception, not the rule, and that we're all best served by making every effort to keep things that way. We also have empirical evidence that compound group names rarely are favored. Most of us were disappointed at losing the fine name "Rufous-sided Towhee", for example, but it's important to consider that there was no groundswell for "Spotted Rufous-sided Towhee" and "Eastern Rufous-sided Towhee": the simpler names have obvious merit. When AOU-NACC implemented one set of compound names following a split, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, there was a backlash, and AOU-NACC sensibly voted to adopt shorter, simpler names (Nelson's and Saltmarsh sparrows).

 

3) Finally, of course, there is the imbalance created within Epinecrophylla: each of the other five species in the genus is just "xxx Antwren" or "xxx-xxx Antwren".

 

It's easy for me to call for simpler names for pyrrhonota, haematonota, and amazonica, of course, but it's (much) harder to craft suitable new names. All three of these taxa have "red" (bright rufous) backs, a feature referenced in the species epithet for two of them (pyrrhonota and haematonota). Possible English names for these species are:

 

Rufous-backed Antwren Epinecrophylla haematonota

 

When a widespread species is split, it's usually advisable to "retire" the name that formerly applied to the entire complex, to remove ambiguity; so, Stipple-throated Antwren, nominate haematonota, will need a new English name. This is one of two taxa in this complex for which the species epithet refers to the color of the upperparts: haematonota (blood backed) and pyrrhonota (flame backed). Cory and Hellmayr (1924) used "Rufous-backed Antwren" for haematonota, so there is a weak precedent for this name; may as well stick with it for now. This name also highlights one of the distinctions from the parapatric fjeldsaai (Brown-backed Antwren).

 

Should SACC decide at a later date to lump haematonota and fjeldsaai after all, then I suggest "Speckle-throated Antwren" as a possible name for the enlarged species: stepping away from the color of the upperparts, but using a variation on the old name "Stipple-throated Antwren".

 

Fulvous-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

 

This is another "red" backed member of the complex; that said, the male is quite similar to males of both haematonota and amazonica. It is the female of pyrrhonota that is more distinctive (in a subtle, Epinecrophylla kinda way), in having the throat yellow ochre and with few if any dark streaks or speckles, as are found on the throat of females of other members of the complex. I propose the name "Fulvous-throated Antwren", to highlight one of the few (or the only?) discrete plumage differences between pyrrhonota and the other taxa.

 

Madeira Antwren Epinecrophylla amazonica

 

By this point, returns rapidly diminish when trying to parse the small-scale plumage differences between these three taxa. The name "Madeira Antwren" refers to the distribution of the combined species, amazonica and dentei. This name could create problems should SACC decide at a later date to recognize dentei as a separate species. But maybe by then someone will have thought of a better name anyway.

 

Finally, the current (although admittedly not long established) names Foothill Antwren (Epinecrophylla spodionota) and Brown-backed Antwren (Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai) should be retained.

 

Recommendation: There are two options with regard to English names for members of the Epinecrophylla haematonota complex:

 

Option A is to adopt the names proposed by Whitney et al. (2013):

 

Napo Stipple-throated Antwren    Epinecrophylla haematonota

Negro Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

Madeira Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipple-throated Antwren    Epinecrophylla spodionota

Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

Option B is to adopt shorter, simpler names for these taxa:

 

Rufous-backed Antwren    Epinecrophylla haematonota

Fulvous-throated Antwren   Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

Madeira Antwren   Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Antwren    Epinecrophylla spodionota

Brown-backed Antwren   Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

My recommendation is "No" on A and "Yes" on B.

 

Literature cited:

Cory, C. B., and C. E. Hellmayr. 1924. Catalogue of birds of the Americas. Part III. Field Museum of Natural History Zoological Series volume 13, part 3.

Hilty, S.L., and W.L. Brown. 1986. A guide to the birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Krabbe, N., M.L. Isler, P.R. Isler, B.M. Whitney, J. Alvarez A., and P.J. Greenfield. 1999. A new species in the Myrmotherula haematonota superspecies (Aves; Thamnophilidae) from the western Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador and Peru. Wilson Bulletin 111: 157-165.

Parker, T.A., III, and J.V. Remsen, Jr. 1987. Fifty-two Amazonian bird species new to Bolivia. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 107: 94-107.

Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The birds of South America. Volume II. The suboscine passerines. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Whitney, B.M., M.L. Isler, G.A. Bravo, N. Aristizábal, F. Schunck, L.F. Silveira, and V. de Q. Piacentini. 2013. A new species of Epinecrophylla antwren from the Aripuanč-Machado interfluvium in central Amazonian Brazil with revision of the "stipple-throated antwren" complex. Pages 263-267 in J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, and D. Christie (editors), Handbook of the birds of the world. Special volume. New species and global index. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Zimmer, J.T. 1932. Studies of Peruvian birds.  III. The genus Myrmotherula in Peru, with notes on extralimital forms. Part 1. American Museum Novitates number 523.

 

 Tom Schulenberg January 2016

 

 

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Comments by Remsen: “Option B.  I actually like the cumbersome compound names in most cases because they usually identify allotaxa in a superspecies and identify a monophyletic unit.  In this case, however, “Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren” is just too much – it almost sounds satirical.  I like Tom’s proposed modifications as well.  “Napo” and “Negro” work in the context of modifying “Stipple-throated”, but as naked modifiers, they do not work as well (there being many other Antwrens in the Napo and Negro regions).”

 

Comments from Bret Whitney: “On this one, first, as Tom mentioned in passing, I and co-authors (2013) did not recognize fjeldsaai as a species, so it’s inappropriate to later in the same proposal include “Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren” as a name suggested by Whitney et al.  If you want to retain it as a species, I think “Introgressed Stipple-throated Antwren” would be an excellent name (all available evidence, including some not published, points to this scenario).  E. dentei didn’t pass, either.  When it’s shown that it is sister to spodionota, however, and not (the assumed, for some reason) amazonica, I imagine everyone will start back-pedaling.

 

“To the point: English names can be taxonomically informative, in the same “Linnaean” manner as scientific names, simply by employing the group name (in this case “stipple-throated”).  This should not be confusing (Did you mean it’s a subspecies? - no!)— if you 1) define and then 2) understand and follow English-naming protocols.  Look, none of us use English names to talk about these birds anyway!  It’s all “scientific” with tongue-twisters like “Epinecrophylla”, or we just drop the hairy genus names.  Truth be told, tour-going folks, like the ones I have dealt with continuously for 37 years, are perfectly fine with names like Spix’s Warbling-Antbird, Sucunduri Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Western Striolated-Puffbird, and Napo Stipple-throated Antwren.  That’s most of the birders who speak English as their first language.  I suggest the SACC adopt a principle of “more lineage orientation in an English name overrules less syllables for convenience” - simple as that.”

 

Comments from Hilty: “I would like to voice my support for Bret's suggestion regarding the use of English group names where a defined protocol is followed.  Previously I have made some name suggestions using group-names, but these have all been soundly rejected with the argument that, among other things, these kinds of names are too long and cumbersome, or awkward-sounding.

 

“Using a group name approach will result in longer English names, but what is the harm? On the contrary, group names can be quite useful in helping people, who do not routinely use scientific jargon, to make some taxonomic sense, or any sense at all, out of the proliferation of new names that are appearing almost weekly.

 

“Groups names also have an advantage, in appropriate cases, of carrying along some of the history of the past. This can help people who may recall, however vaguely from an earlier book or a past birding experience, for example, a Thrush-like Schiffornis, but are unaware that any of a half dozen recent new names suddenly confronting them (which they are unlikely to remember anyway) are just Schiffornis splits from a former single species. Simply adding a prefix like "Eastern, Western, Amazonian, a river name, a mountain," etc. to a group name can help organize a lot of clutter and confusion.  It isn't necessary to coin a completely new name for each of these little splits if they are all related.  Not only are folks perfectly fine with this, as Bret noted, but they will likely be helped because keeping a group name in the mix makes it easier to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

“The only persons that should be objecting to longer names should be book publishers because of the extra expense of printing longer names, but everything is all going to be electronic anyway in short order, so that really doesn't matter.”

 

Comments from Stotz: “I prefer the shorter, simpler names.  I was not enthusiastic about the various species of Warbling-Antbirds, but didn’t see an alternative.  Because Warbling is not double barreled already, that group name is not as much of a mouthful.  For the most part, I oppose attempting to use English names to try to give a lot of detail about phylogeny.  In this case, I can see no reason for focusing on the unit at one time considered conspecific as haematonota as a group as the group with the “group name.”  E. gutturalis is part of that subclade, so it would make as much sense to call it xxx Stipple-throated Antwren as any of these others.  Probably Guianan Stipple-throated Antwren would be better than Checker-throated Stipple-throated Antwren.  Or should we create a group name for the whole genus, to distinguish these from other Antwrens?”

 

Comments from Zimmer: “YES on A, NO on B.  At the risk of Tom forever questioning my sanity, I have to go with Bret and Steve on this one.  I simply do not share Tom’s visceral contempt for compound English names – in fact, more often than not, I prefer them.  Employing a modifier to a hyphenated group-name not only gives us phylogenetic information, but it is an organizing principle that allows us to make some kind of contextual sense out of the clutter.  Sure, simple, short names are great…until they’re not.  They work pretty well in temperate North America and Europe, where species diversity is relatively limited and the birds are so familiar to so many.  Once you start getting into more poorly known, tropical regions, it all starts to break down due to the inescapable fact that there are only X number of colors, and Y number of body parts on a bird, and somehow, you’ve got to come up with unique, pithy names that are also descriptive in some way for thousands of birds.  I do not like attempts to split hairs on morphologically descriptive names in speciose groups of birds – that’s precisely how we ended up with the original “Fifty Shades of Gray” among the Thamnophilidae.  Trying to keep straight which taxon is Gray, Grayish, Plumbeous, Cinereous, Leaden, Slaty, Slate-colored, Ashy, Dusky, Saturnine, Black, Blackish, Jet, etc. etc. is both tedious and confusing.  In the case under consideration, why should E. haematonota be singled out as “Rufous-backed” when so many other members of the genus are also rusty backed?  Nor do I like the idea of having to distinguish between members of the genus that are “Speckle-throated” as opposed to “Stipple-throated” or “Checker-throated”. 

 

“By making simple, short names the Holy Grail, we end up sacrificing information and clarity on the altar of brevity.  I love geographic modifiers, but they are most informative, and work best when used in conjunction with a hyphenated group name.  “Madeira” Antwren could refer to any one of a number of antwrens, most of which aren’t even in the same genus as E. amazonica.  But when you add the group name, suddenly, there is clarity.  Four of the five names proposed by Whitney et al. (2013) have geographic modifiers (Napo, Negro, Madeira & Roosevelt) that, when coupled with the group name, should allow instant recognition.  Conversely, if we look at the names suggested in Option B of this proposal, we have one species named for a plumage trait that is shared with multiple other species in the same complex; one that is named for a plumage trait that applies to only the female of the species; one that is named for a geographic region; one that is named for an elevational zone; and another that is named for a plumage character unique to the species-group, but not unique to the genus or to antwrens in general – in other words, there is not only no symmetry to the naming scheme for several very similar species, but, there is little in any of the names that helps distinguish one antwren from another.

 

“Maybe it’s just my exposure to African bird names that has numbed me to the evils of long, compound names, but I really don’t see what the big deal is.  I regularly deal with names such as Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver and Greater Blue-eared Starling (which, formerly, was the even clunkier “Greater Blue-eared Glossy-Starling”), and, like Bret, I don’t see those long names causing any particular undo stress on tour participants or other birders.  To borrow another example from East Africa:  on my Tanzania tours, we encounter two different members of the “Red-billed Hornbill-complex”, the Northern Red-billed Hornbill and the endemic, recently split, Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill.  Each species has a clunky, 4-part name that, nonetheless, serves its purpose in imparting a clear identity.  But if we were to remove the group name, how useful would the modifiers be?  Neither “Tanzanian Hornbill” nor “Northern Hornbill” does anything to separate either bird in anyone’s mind from any of the other sympatric species of hornbills in their respective regions. 

 

“In closing, I might as well be an equal-opportunity offender, by noting that I hope Bret (in his comments on this proposal) was kidding when he suggested that “Introgressed Stipple-throated Antwren” would be an “excellent name” should the committee continue to treat fjeldsaai as a species.  To my thinking, that name would combine the worst traits of both naming strategies – a name that is simultaneously long and clunky, yet ultimately silly in its attempts to be clever (like an unholy union between Rueppell’s Long-tailed Glossy-Starling and Ancient/Predicted [take your pick] Antwren).  Saddling fjeldsaai with the name “Introgressed Stipple-throated Antwren” would be reason enough to downgrade it to subspecies status, if we knew nothing else about it!”

 

Comment from Duncan Ritchie: “If the Committee feels it ought to find a new English name for E. fjeldsaai it’s worth bearing in mind that IOC currently uses Yasuni Antwren for this taxon. Although its range isn’t restricted to the National Park, Yasuni Stipple-throated Antwren might be worth considering if the Xxx Stipple-throated Antwren formula is adopted.”

 

Comments from Robbins: “Yes to A, no to B. Quite frankly, I really don’t care what label is given to the English name, as it really means nothing to someone who communicates only via the scientific name, and no, I don’t lead tours! I think Brett’s English name of Introgressed xxxx for fjeldsaai is hilarious!  I’m pretty sure for the most part that was tongue in cheek.  Lighten up everyone!”

 

Comments from Mort Isler: “I think it is highly relevant that three of the pre-eminent leaders of South American birding tours with a combined experience of close to 100 years of leading tours (Hilty, Whitney, and Zimmer) support the value of compound English names. Who better to assess the worth of English names to the individuals (birders) who use them the most? The principal argument in the proposal (in my opinion) is clearly contradicted.

            “Not proposed in Whitney et al. 2013, the example of Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren is a "red herring." Regarding this subject, E. fjeldsaai should have been described as a subspecies. As the two principal authors of the paper, Niels Krabbe and I struggled with species versus subspecies. In fairness to Niels, I pushed for species, something that I, twenty years later, would not do today. Proposal 590, to treat E. fjeldsaai as a subspecies, was turned down by SACC by a slim margin, and at least two of the naysayers stated that they would probably change their minds if data, especially vocal data, which we did not have in 1998 were published. I hope to remedy this in the near future with a published note. In the interim, there is no reason that E. fjeldsaai cannot remain Brown-backed Antwren.”

 

Comments from Stiles: “The comments by Steve and Bret have caused me to rethink my views on English names. I tend to agree with their argument: the principal users of English names of South American birds do tend to be visitors, mainly birders, from northern climes. Members of the scientific community and native Neotropical birders are nearly all quite content to go by the Latin names, in spite of their volatility due to ongoing genetic studies.  Hence, I see no real advantage to coining a set of simpler, more euphonious names at the cost of reducing their utility in species identification for those who have the most need for English names. Hence, despite their “clunkiness”, I think that the English names for a species complex of species with very similar plumages that birders identify more easily by their geographic locations. In effect, I think that English names should be more “user-friendly”.  Hence, if we simply move our criterion up a notch to “species complex” from “species”, I see no reason for alternative B and vote in favor of alternative A.”

 

Additional comments from Schulenberg: It has been interesting for me to read, and to mull over, the comments on my suggested names from members of SACC and other interested parties. Of course, I am not in the least persuaded by any of the arguments in favor (!) of long, cumbersome, ugly-ass names. I can see that, in this forum, my suggestions may well be shot down, but let me offer some further thoughts.

 

“I want to start with a consideration of the basic scientific name. It consists of only two words, genus name and species name. This format conveys very little real information, taxonomically or otherwise. Among other things, it doesn't tell you what family, order, class, or phylum a species belongs to, much less whether or not it is a member of a superspecies. And of course, what the scientific name tells you may well be wrong anyway (e.g., Tangara chilensis, Caryothraustes canadensis, etc.).

 

“And yet the binomial system of nomenclature has endured for almost 260 years. How can a system that conveys so little information be so durable? The answer is, in part, that the names are simple. More to the point, the binomial system recognizes that a name is ... a name. It's just a label. With the name, we have access to all the information that is known about a given taxon. That's it: simplicity is the secret to success. If you need to know anything about a species, you can look it up; and if that information is important to you, then you remember it. But you don't need the name, in itself, to do a lot of work for you.

 

“I'm not going to suggest that all English names be equally simple, composed of just two words. Boring! But I do argue that something has gone off track when the English name is used to convey more phylogenetic information than the scientific name (!). And in particular, when a series of English names require long strings of modifiers to make a particular point, then maybe you're just trying too hard. Keep the major agendas out of it, and just let names be names. It's a proven system.

 

“There's always a disruption of some kind when a species is split or lumped, and everyone needs to figure out the new taxonomy. But this disruption is short-lived, whereas a well-chosen name will endure for decades. I don't agree with the suggestion that retaining some part of an older name is that important for smoothing over the inevitable disruption from a split. Most of us can remember when taxonomy and nomenclature were a black box: decrees were issued from somewhere on high, with the little people having scant warning of impending changes, and little access to information on the ramifications of a split. Nowadays, however, splits and everything associated with splits - minutiae of taxonomy and nomenclature, distributions and vocalizations of all taxa concerned, critiques of the literature on which a split is based, everything under the sun - all this and more is available to anyone with an internet connection and one iota of initiative. One approach, then, is to saddle future generations of birders and ornithologists with complicated names solely out of a perceived need to cater to the limitations of the least informed or laziest birders at one particular moment in history. Or one can take another approach: just bite the bullet, create new, short, simple names, and get on with it. 

 

“Africa is a special case, where for a variety of reasons many species have a tangled history of multiple (and often bad) English names. Suggesting that SACC endorse names that are comparable to terrible names used in Africa doesn't strike me as a strong argument. Also keep in mind that a name like Greater Blue-eared Starling still is an outlier, even in Africa; again I argue that such names endure in part because they are rare, and that creating more such names is not the best solution. As noted, Greater Blue-eared Starling (and many other species) formerly were known as xxx Glossy-Starling. In other words, even in Africa, there is a trend towards making names shorter and simpler. So perhaps that trend towards simplicity should be the take-away from this particular example?

 

“I don't see any parallels at all between the empirical evidence we have from North America in favor of shorter simpler names (e.g., the former Sharp-tailed Sparrows) and the experiences of tour participants in South America. The latter encounter a name only once or twice, and may never utter it at all; instead they just look at a bird when a tour leader tells them where it is, and at the end of the day they tick off on an entry on a checklist. They are not using the names in any real way. Their apparent "endorsement" of long complicated names has meaning only if one doesn't much care that these names are used actively by the smallest possible number of speakers."

 

Comments from Jaramillo:

 

“A - NO

B - YES Option B is to adopt shorter, simpler names for these taxa

 

“This is a clear-cut situation for me, simplicity is always good in an English name. The lost information is not something that is useful to the average birder. This is a situation where our committee really does appear to be out of touch with the average birder, or user of bird English names. Also out of touch to the situation that is occurring in Latin America where more and more local guides, some learning English only to be able to guide trips, are a major user group who NEED desperately to communicate with the visiting birders. Mort Isler's suggestions that birding guides with 100 plus years of experience are the user group, is not right. The people those guides interact with are the user group, not the guides. The guides already have their entrenched ideas of how things should be, I include myself here, and I am for simplicity and ease of communication. I also like unique and memorable names. Having said that, also out of touch is to use the word "Negro" out of context like this. Rio Negro yes, but Negro alone bothers me, again in the spirit of being sensitive to the wide and broad user base of these names. Most birders have no idea there is a Rio Negro, which might put this name into context, and not have it seem offensive! This would be really out of touch to propose a name that was "Negro xxxxx" much better to propose "Introgressed xxxx" in my books, at least that is funny.

 

“Long compound names are scorned by average birders, they hate them. They see names as handed down by a group of people who seemingly were not thinking about them. You will always upset some with name choices, so you can't please all. However, think of the gains you make by these compound names, of information content. How valuable is that really? You can see relationships in genera, order in the checklist, in many other ways. But when you just have to say... hey look here, there is a XXX, isn't that better than hey look there is an XXX YYY-ZZZ-###???”

 

Additional Comments from Remsen:  “As noted in my first comments, I see nothing wrong with long compound names when they help align allotaxa, at least when simpler names just won’t work.  With respect to Tom’s comments above, just because most names don’t convey relationships doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about this when the opportunity arises.  With respect to Alvaro’s comments, I think we err by lumping all birders into a single category, and that there is some large portion of them who would be interested in actually learning something, e.g. that the Rio Negro and Rio Napo are important biogeographically.  There is a continuum within “birders”, from those who will never recall that name once twitched on a list (e.g., let’s be honest, a lot of tour participants who would require a tour leader to get things into right genus and family, much less species) to those who would find the compound name useful in sorting out their birds in a broader context and are eager to learn new material.  The latter are also much more likely to be life-long birders who would have a higher chance of remembering and using again an English names.  I don’t like catering to the lowest end of the spectrum.  I am reminded of the guy from Alabama who about once every other year wrote Burt Monroe (when he was NACC Chair) a scathing letter pointing out to him that “Northern Cardinal” was a characteristic bird of The South.  This also reminds me that in everyday talk, birders often abbreviate the names to simpler versions, e.g. “Cardinal” as per above, regardless of what they fill in on their official lists.  So, in the current situation, I would imagine that the “field names” would be more like “Madeira Stipple-throat”.  Also, let’s keep in mind that birders aren’t the only ones who use English names, although I suspect that in general all users prefer simpler names.

 

“That said, rather than debate compound vs. simple, let’s stick to THIS particular case.  In my opinion, this is a case in which the compound names just won’t work.  In my view, the compound name “Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren” sounds as if its origin was a Monty Python routine or perhaps something from a verse from “One-horned One-eyed Flyin’ Purple People-Eater”.  As Alvaro pointed out, “Negro” would have to become “Rio Negro” and thus Napo likely also “Rio Napo.”  So, regardless of how I feel about long names (and like Steve Hilty, Bret and Kevin’s comments have caused me to shift my general thinking), the current versions are just too cumbersome for me to swallow.”

 

Additional comments from Stiles:I really can’t get enthusiastic about either set of alternatives: I find Bret’s names desperately clunky, and Tom’s aseptic and nondistinctive. So, I wonder if a different approach might produce a more digestible result. All species of Epinecrophylla possess “stippled” –or checkered, or spotted (or whatever one wishes to split the hairs) throats, and all the problems here derive from the decidedly clunky group name of the “stipple-throated” subclade. The problem is less with the modifiers than what they are supposed to modify. So why not back up one step and simply use the genus name as an English name? Admittedly, Epinecrophylla is a bit more of a tongue twister than, say, Schiffornis – but using it as an English name makes coining modifiers very much easier. Foothill, Napo, Río Negro and Madeira  Epinecrophyllas are much more digestible than the same followed by the equally clunky “Stipple-throated Antwren”! For haematonota I’d suggest “Red-backed Epinecrophylla” as it is a more or less direct translation of the Latin name (“Blood-backed” doesnęt sound nice at all..). Using the generic name does help the observer to place any of these birds in its genus. A minor shortcoming is that we lose the identity of the “stipple-throated” subclade in the process, but I see this as a lesser evil because the members of the genus all share “stippled-type” throats. The only possible fly in the ointment is guttata, which may not be a close relative –  if not, it stands out as a nice example of convergence, and its distribution is way out in right field as the only Atlantic Forest representative of this plumage type, so confusion would be minimal for the field observer. Anyhow, I’ll run this suggestion up the proverbial flagpole to see if you all salute it or shoot it!”

 

Comments from Pearman: “I don't have a clear-cut vote because I would have preferred to take onboard some of the suggestions given by others, a combination of which provides a better choice of names in my opinion.

 

“The long compound names are cumbersome while I much prefer the use of geographical names for all these taxa, which makes it difficult to choose between A or B. I'd like to endorse the suggestion of using the name Stipplethroat as a group name, but without the hyphen as I don't see the need for it. In this way we would have the generic information from the long compound names in a condensed format. Since Epinecrophylla is a recently coined genus, I don't see a major issue with coining an English name for this group, besides we are already used to a few group names within the Thamnophilidae e.g. fire-eyes, bare-eyes. I see this as a compromise between all the suggestions given so far and a solution to what has become a divided camp. The suggestion by Stiles of using Epinecrophylla as a group name is valid but it is too long a name, which would undoubtedly cause pronunciation difficulties.

 

“Besides being extremely long “Brown-backed Stipple-throated Antwren” is not even the only Epinecrophylla with a brown back, so I can't go with that. I much prefer Duncan Richie's suggestion of using the Yasuni modifier, which I believe comes from Ridgely. I have a problem with the name Rufous-backed Antwren for E. haematonota in that E. amazonica also has a rufous back, not to mention several Myrmotherula species. So the Brown-backed and Fulvous-throated are just as confusing in this group.

 

“So my ideal names would have been.

 

Napo Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla haematonota

Rio Negro Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

Madeira Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla spodionota

Yasuni Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

“It's not my intention to hijack the proposal, but if this was Option C, would it gain consensus?

 

“If I am forced to vote I would have to choose option A, just because those names are more informative and I believe more memorable.”

 

 

Additional comments from Remsen:  “Well this must set a new record for degree of deliberation required to establish new English names.  What a mess.  No matter how you score the votes, it’s basically a tie, and I don’t think either A or B is viable as is.

 

“Trying to distill all the many helpful comments and hit the “reset” button, as Acting Chair, it seems to me that two options are currently in the lead.

 

“Option A1”: Retain “Stipple-throated” in the name to denote a monophyletic group but replace the modifiers as follows:

 

(Rio?) Napo Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla haematonota

Rio Negro Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

(Rio?) Madeira Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla spodionota

Yasuni Stipple-throated Antwren Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

“I think the “Rio” in front of Negro is a must for obvious reasons, but do we then have to add Rio to the others for symmetry?

 

“Option C” (from Mark P.):

 

(Rio?) Napo Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla haematonota

Rio Negro Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla pyrrhonota

(Rio?) Madeira Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla amazonica

Foothill Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla spodionota

Yasuni Stipplethroat Epinecrophylla fjeldsaai

 

Note that this would also require, in my opinion, the change of all English names of Epinecrophylla to Stipplethroat (including a species shared with NACC) for obvious reasons, i.e.:

 

Epinecrophylla fulviventris Checker-throated Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla gutturalis 
Brown-bellied Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla leucophthalma 
White-eyed Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla ornata 
Ornate Stipplethroat
Epinecrophylla erythrura 
Rufous-tailed Stipplethroat

 

“As tedious and frustrating as this case has been, I think (?) we are making progress and that regardless of outcome, this case demonstrates the importance of active discussion and getting multiple viewpoints for the process of picking English names.  Once a proponent of Option B, I’m now glad we didn’t vote that one in as is.”

 

Comments from Schulenberg: “A while back Gary described my recommended shorter, simpler names as "aseptic and nondistinctive". Well, I don't know; I thought that they were descriptive, and distinctive enough. "Rufous-backed" (haematonota) and "Brown-backed" (fjeldsaai) are decent descriptive names. The only knock is that they are not uniquely descriptive, but then neither is Pygmy, Slaty, Gray, etc. I've said it before, I'll say it again: most existing descriptive bird names are not uniquely descriptive, and yet we use those names every day without incident. Insisting that proposed new names must be uniquely descriptive is setting the system up to fail. I just don't understand the urge to make a difficult job that much harder. And "Rufous-backed" and "Brown-backed" are contrasting descriptive names for a pair of allopatric related species; this is a formulation that some find pleasing. "Fulvous-throated" is descriptive, after a fashion, but I admit it's not a great name. On the other hand, I don't see it as being any different than or worse than, say, Long-winged. 

 

“Anyway, Gary then suggested Epinecrophylla as the English group name for these taxa. That's thinking outside the box! That said, I think it's a mistake for us to make a habit of regularly relying on genus names as English group names. Some names (vireo, junco) can make the transition, but I wouldn't count on that as matter of course. In this case, conversant as I am with scientific names, I've always hated "Epinecrophylla": I understand the etymology, but it looks ugly and I don't like trying to think about how to pronounce it. So you can imagine what the average nonspecialist would think. My immediate thought was the same as Mark's: why not try "Stipplethroat", which has the advantage of using words from, you know, English to coin an English name.

 

“So I can handle "Stipplethroat", and it's certainly better than the needlessly convoluted "xxxx xxxxx-xxxx Antwren" names that I've railed against. That said ... those of us who know these birds well are very focused on the differences between the various genera of antwrens (Epinecrophylla, Myrmotherula, Herpsilochmus, Microrhopias, Formicivora, etc.), and even on species groups within these genera. All of that is important, but English is not well suited for the creation of separate group names for each genus or superspecies. And in any event, there's a risk here of losing sight of the forest for all the trees. Thamnophilidae is a large family, and we assume that everyone in the bird world will have some familiarity with the name "antbird". Given that, "antwren" immediately connotes a small active antbird. That's easy to get. What's a "stipplethroat?" How long will it take for a new English group name to filter out to all of the relevant users? It's one thing for us to propose a new species-specific modifier ("Rufous-backed" vs "Napo" or "Rio Napo"), but it's getting out there to propose a completely novel English group name, a name that deviates considerably from anything else in use for other species in this family.

 

“For all of these reasons, I still prefer the short descriptive "xxx Antwren" names. Apparently that's just me, although I can still hope that someone, anyone, will concede my points. And who knows, if "Leaf-love" (Phyllastrephus scandens) can thrive, then perhaps "stipplethroat" will as well.

 

“I didn't comment before on the suggestion of "Yasuni" for fjeldsaai, but I don't much care for it - even though it suddenly now is the default name. The taxon (species, subspecies, whatever) is not restricted to Yasuni or even to Ecuador, in fact isn't Yasuni the northern limit of its range? How's that for a name that isn't very descriptive?

 

“If we go the route of the river basin names (which as you can see I'm still grumbling about), then pyrrhonota needs the "Rio" to go with "Negro". Beyond the reasons already discussed, this avoids the ambiguity of leading someone to conclude that this is a mostly black stipplethroat/antwren. I would prefer not to add "Rio" to the other names (again, I'd prefer not to use the river basin names anyway), but there's precedent in Myrmotherula (Rio Suno Antwren Myrmotherula sunensis), so may as well make things foolishly consistent in every way imaginable.

 

“So, my preferences remain with the names I originally proposed (and which had a decent amount of support, if not quite a majority). If those names now are jettisoned (unless there's a last-minute groundswell to revert?? anyone???), my reluctant votes would be in grudging acceptance of "stipplethroat" and "Rio xxx": anything to nip highly compound names in the bud, at least this time around. One battle at a time.”