"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Romeo and Juliet)

Dear SACC members,

We are about to submit a series of papers that demonstrate (we hope) that some thamnophilid antbird species as currently defined include subspecies that warrant recognition at the species level. One challenge that we face is to suggest English names for the newly elevated species. Before submitting the papers, we would like to achieve some understanding of how the SACC members feel about English names. After all, it is inefficient (at the least) for us to propose names that will only raise questions in the SACC. Before submitting the papers, I am hopeful of getting some feedback from SACC members (or possibly a consensus) on the issues.

In particular, the notion of constructing the name from a hyphenated form of a currently recognized name (e.g. Guianan Slaty-Antshrike) has been criticized. Based on my correspondence with one critic (who shall remain unnamed because I do not wish to represent arguments below as his/her views without approval), I understand the arguments against this practice as follows:

1) Names should be kept simple, not more than two words long if possible. My correspondent believe that modern English usage is tending to simplify words, and users (especially birders) do not like compound names. If possible, names should be descriptive or evocative of appearance or behavior, but it is better that they be simple than complex and evocative.

2) English names should not have phylogenetic implications, and hyphenated names have an implication of sisterhood with other species sharing that name. This is a dangerous practice given current levels of understanding of phylogeny of Neotropical birds.


Argument 1) English names should be kept simple while evoking appearance or behavior.

I doubt if anyone would argue with that. However, there are fundamental difficulties in implementing this objective in the Neotropics. The first is the sheer number of taxa. In large families, such as the Thamnophilidae, simple names that describe plumage characters, like Black Antbird, have mostly been applied previously. Furthermore, many subspecies that will be elevated to species status do not have obvious plumage features that differ from their sisters which is, of course, why they have been considered conspecific. Behavioral differences among antbirds are subtle; I doubt that many could be applied without sounding "pedantic," a state which my unnamed critic says to avoid, and I cannot disagree.

To modifiers of appearance or behavior, I would add geographic features as other potentially descriptive and simple modifiers. But they, too, present problems. I agree it is appropriate when a species is named for a chunk of geography to which it is entirely or predominantly restricted, but should a taxon be called Ecuadorian Antbird when the large majority of its range is in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru? Or taking it to another extreme, should a species be named for a type locality when its range extends far beyond the locality? Furthermore, my correspondent says that a corollary objective should be to have names that birders can relate to easily. I doubt that many birders can identify with most type localities.

I want to stress that I am not attacking the idea of making common names simple and evocative. I think it should be done at every opportunity. My only point is that it is difficult to do so with large families of the Neotropics.

Argument 2. English names should not have phylogenetic implications.

Frankly, I do not see why not. I believe that it is helpful to be able to go from one region of the Neotropics to another and readily understand that X is a sister and possibly a replacement to Y. If an acceptable objective in creating English names is to aid the user (ornithologist, birder, or whatever) to relate the name to the species, isn't having hyphenated names of species in common with their sisters a valid element of that objective?

Of course, there should be evidence that taxa joined by hyphenated names are indeed each other's closest relatives. The danger is that assumptions about relationships are found false after additional analysis is undertaken. In such circumstances, although name changes are clearly undesirable, English names may be modified. As an example, when we showed that the Slaty Antshrike consisted of multiple species, we named the trans-Andean form (Thamnophilus atrinucha) Western Slaty-Antshrike despite its divergence from the other taxa in the complex in what we believe are two important characters that the other taxa shared in common (namely tail motion and structure of a vocalization--the rattle). There is still no evidence to contradict the assumption that T. atrinucha's closest relatives are the other taxa named Slaty-Antshrike, but if a closer relationship were found between T atrinucha and other species, I cannot imagine that it would be a disaster to change its name to Western Antshrike.

Of course, if evidence does not suggest sisterhood, the hyphenated name can be avoided. For example, when we studied the streaked antwren complex, we recommended Myrmotherula pacifica be called Pacific Antwren rather than Pacific Streaked-Antwren. The simple name of Pacific Antwren was available so that made it easy, but we would have looked for another name rather than recommend Pacific Streaked-Antwren. However, if future studies suggest that species named Streaked-Antwren (M. surinamensis and M. multistriatus) are close relatives, I cannot see that it will be difficult to change the name to Pacific Streaked-Antwren.


Now, I would ask you to consider the pros and cons among alternate sets of English names for one complex we have currently under study. Assume for the moment that Hypocnemis cantator consists of six species consisting of the following subspecies (oldest name first within each): (1) nominate/notaea, (2) flavescens/perflava, (3) peruviana/saturata, (4) subflava/collinsi, (5) ochrogyna, and (6) striata/implicata/ affinis. The following are three alternate sets of English names for these in sequence. Please treat the names as illustrations ("straw men") simply to get a sense of English name choices.

Here is what we might come up with by associating names with plumage (maintaining the name of the nominate form). (1) Warbling Antbird, (2) Pale-yellow Antbird, (3) Saturated Antbird, (4) Deep-yellow Antbird, (5) Ochraceous Antbird, (6) Striped Antbird.

Here is what we might come up with by associating taxa with type locations (again maintaining the name of the nominate form). (1) Warbling Antbird, (2) Marabitanas Antbird, (3) Yurimaguas Antbird, (4) Monterrico Antbird, (5) Tapirapua Antbird, and (6) Santarem Antbird.

And finally here is what we might come up with by maintaining Warbling-Antbird with a regional modifier. (1) Guianan Warbling Antbird, (2) Imeri Warbling-Antbird, (3) Western Warbling-Antbird, (4) Foothills Warbling-Antbird, (5) Rondonian Warbling-Antbird, and (6) Eastern Warbling-Antbird.

What are your thoughts?

Mort Isler, Feb. 2004



Mort raises some good points. I have also talked with others at length
about this question. Although I agree with others that lengthy compound
names are awkward and to be avoided if possible, I also do not share the
same visceral distaste for compound names that some have. Descriptive
(meaning morphology-based) names are great when well-conceived, and are
tolerable when dealing with a limited avifauna (e.g. North America, Europe).
But when you are talking about 3000-4000 species of birds, the concept bogs
down. There are only X number of colors, and Y number of body parts, which,
when applied to a complex and diverse avifauna, results in a morass of
confusing, so-called "descriptive" names. In antbirds alone we have
basically all gray/black (to one degree of color saturation or another)
birds with the modifiers "Black", "Blackish", "Dusky", "Gray", "Plumbeous",
"Cinereous", "Slate-colored", "Slaty", "Saturnine", "Jet", "Leaden" and
"Ashy". When applied to the myriads of flycatchers, these names become even
more confusing and nonsensical. Mort's example of potential plumage-based
names for the various splits in the Hypocnemis cantator complex are
particularly unappealing.

The problem of English name construction is going to be driven home to
several us in the near future. I'm already cringing at the prospect of
coming up with new names for several species of foliage gleaners and
Tolmomyias flycatchers that will be split in forthcoming papers. The
prospect is not pretty.

In cases where evidence points to close (ie. sister) relationships between
taxa, I would be in favor of using compound names for their informative
value, assuming that good, shorter alternatives are not available. Mort's
example of the Hypocnemis cantator complex would seem to be a prime case
where the various taxa are clearly one another's closest relatives, and
where a geographic modifier combined with a hyphenated group name would be
superior to any of the non-compound name alternatives. The Slaty-Antshrike
complex would seem to be another prime example, keeping in mind Mort's
caveat regarding T. atrinucha's possible lack of relationship to the rest of
the complex.

In summary, I'm not advocating that we go hog-wild in using compund group
names. I think short, simple names that are either descriptive of range or
morphology (or named after someone) are the way to go when possible. But I
also think we shouldn't force meaningless descriptive names just to avoid
the compound alternatives. The compound names really do convey much more
information regarding relatedness, and when the evidence for sister status
between taxa is strong, I think the compound names can be the way to go.
Another alternative, is the use of the genus name in the English name (as in
Phainopepla or Sirystes). For instance, Ridgely and Greenfield have
reverted to calling Tolmomyias species "flatbills", to set them apart from
other flycatchers. However, when we use the term "flatbill" for
Ramphotrigon, Rhynchocyclus and now Tolmomyias, I don't know that we've
gained that much clarity. Why not call these Tolmomyias species
"Tolmomyias", as in "Yellow-olive Tolmomyias" or "Yellow-margined
Tolmomyias"? How do committee members feel about this?"


Additional comments from Steve Hilty (Sept. 2005):

"Just getting around to reading your comments to SACC committee on English names. I didn't see a date on this commentary so it may be years old. If it is forgive me. I am not on the committee so my comments may not carry much weight but I do use English bird names constantly on tours and birding cruises and I have a fair idea of what works well and is helpful and what doesn't for people. In this regard my sense of appropriate English names may be closer to the needs of the English speaking public than some committee members who seldom use English names and others for whom English is a second language.

I feel that English "group" names, as you mention below, are very useful because with the sheer volume of names, and with more being needed all the time, these are of real value in helping people organize the growing chaos (committee notwithstanding) in English names. I wouldn't hesitate in saying that good organization of English names is going to be practically essential in the future if anybody is going to retain an English-name grip on the huge number of taxonomic splits in the pipeline. Therefore, I like very much the idea of a-------- Warbling-Antbird; b-------Warbling-Antbird, c---------Warbling-Antbird, etc. Following your splits of the Streaked-Antwrens I used this terminology in Birds of Venezuela; and also did the same for Northern and Southern White-fringed Antwren (which some may feel is a premature split or should have been published in peer-review form first but I trust it will eventually be published). Given the glacially slow nature of the peer-review process it could be decades before someone gets around to some of these things so maybe a bit of controversy here and there will light some fires.

The group name concept also helps to retain a bit of the history or evolution of these names through time and that, too, is important. And, just as we use genera in scientific nomenclature as a basis for grouping taxa of similar morphologies, English group-names accomplish the same function, and what an enormous help that is when you work with people that have not spent their entire lives in the tiny microcosm of bird taxonomy. Group names really help in explaining distribution patterns to those who want to learn but are not scientists.

Arguments to the contrary (that is, keeping names simplistic), I believe, are often ill-advised. Of course, there will be errors and changes to names in the future. Systematics is a long way from perfection but English names are easier to change than scientific (Greek and Latin) ones and there are plenty of the scientific ones that I suspect people wish could be changed. The days of ethnocentric single names for birds (as formerly in England with, "The wren; swallow etc.) are essentially over; and frankly the days of two-word names may also be drawing to a close for all the reasons you mentioned (lack of colors, morphologies etc.). Personally I don't mind a longer name if it confers information. After all, nobody seems to object to names like Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Black-throated Green Warbler or other complex names in North America and, in South America we have four or five times as many species (or more) to work with. Many established names area already fairly long, i.e. some hawk-eagles; foliage-gleaners; pygmy-tyrants; tody-flycatchers, and so on and these seem perfectly acceptable. Also, in some cases it seems preferable, in my opinion, to make a slight change in an English name so that the generic relationship is preserved or emphasized, and to provide clarification. An example is the relatively minor change from Golden-tufted Grackle to Golden-tufted Mountain-Grackle I made in my recent Venezuela text. The English word grackle isn't very specific; it denotes several genera. The change to Mountain-Grackle is a minor clarification that clearly aligns the name with the genus Macroagelaius which, in my opinion, provides readers with much more information. To those who resist name changes, I say, make the changes, if appropriate and get it right or make it better now, while we are still early in the history of English names (in South America). This IS the time to make changes. We all live with change so why are we agonizing over this. So, Mort, those are my thoughts. I fully support and endorse your idea of using group names such as Warbling-Antbird; Slaty-Antshrike; Streaked-Antwren; where appropriate.

I might add that I certainly think geographical names or native names are good. as well, when not used excessively. In Birds of Venezuela I followed Ridgely's and Tudor's lead in changing both of the redstart names below to geographical names (and I'd prefer Whitestart as well) but I find it curious that the SACC committee was inconsistent in these regards, recommending changing one, Myioborus pariae from Yellow-faced Redstart to Paria Redstart but not changing Myioborus cardoni from Saffron-breasted Redstart to Guaiquinima Redstart. The name Saffron-breasted confers essentially no information (every member of the genus in SA has a yellow breast) but the bird is found ONLY on Cerro Guaiquinima in Venezuela. You tell me which name carries more useful information-and a name is all about information transfer isn't it?

Some also advocate adopting scientific names, i.e. the genus name, for use as an English name. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but I would recommend this be done with restraint too, lest we lose sight of our object which is an ENGLISH name. Some, such as Attila, Elaenia (two genera), Tityra, Vireo, Euphonia, Chlorophonia, Hemispingus, etc. are well established and we scarcely even think of them as being borrowed from the Greek or Latin. We use other generic names so often (think Empidonax and Myiarchus) that they could almost be incorporated into English names without anyone even noticing. Sometimes, also, when it becomes necessary to transfer a species from one family to another there is simply no easy way out of the English-name mess except to borrow from the scientific name, as I did (I hope appropriately) for the Cinnamon Neopipo. However, other times this seems less successful when, for example, a name evolves through too many permutations too quickly, i.e. the manakin/mourner/Schiffornis morass and we are still left scratching our heads and wondering where the heck the "information" is in the name. That, I think, was an example of trying to force an English name change prematurely-before our taxonomic foundation was (is) solid. The message here. Put some genuine thought and creativity into developing English names (a la John Gould's hummingbird names). In the long run a good English name is, in my opinion, worth more than a good Latin/Greek name if for no other reason than more people will use it and remember it.

-Steve Hilty



additional comments from Joe Tobias (Nov. 2005):

During a discussion with Mort about names for the Warbling Antbird complex my attention was drawn to this debate. I have an interest in its outcome as the "Hypocnemis cantator complex" is a focus for a current study, and likely shall be for some time to come. Apologies for another intrusion by a non-member, but I hope some of the views might be of some interest or use.

Much as I value simplicity in nomenclature, I agree that aiming for simple two-word names in diverse suboscine families is doomed. It is clear from Mort's example that the use of type localities in English names is often inappropriate, particularly in wide-ranging species. As the use of ever more precise descriptive terms is equally beguiling, those authors bent on subdividing multi-species complexes are left with three main options:

1) use compound names,
2) borrow generic names,
3) create new names.

1) In agreement with others I think that compound names can be a good idea, when simpler alternatives are unavailable, and that the phylogenetic insight they provide is a bonus, IF it is accurate. Mort mentions the Thamnophilus atrinucha issue, and I will add another from Hypocnemis. If we call each erstwhile Warbling Antbird, the "so-and-so Warbling-Antbird", we isolate the final member of the genus, the Yellow-browed Antbird H. hypoxantha. Given that some members of the "cantator complex" are possibly more closely related to hypoxantha than they are to cantator, I would vote in favour of extending the use of "Warbling-Antbird" to hypoxantha, so that the phylogenetic implications of the name are not misleading. Using this approach the compound name would apply to all members of the clear-cut genus Hypocnemis. My point here is that we must be careful with compound names as their application should bear more relevance to phylogeny than to the accidents of nomenclatural history. If they necessitate knock-on changes to well-established English names, some may feel reticent about employing them.

Casting around, it soon becomes apparent that compound names are not always suitable. What may work for the Warbling-Antbirds, won't work so well for the Yellow-olive-Flycatchers. Which brings us to option number

2) I agree with Steve and Kevin that borrowing generic names is one way out of this conundrum. I would go along with using "Tolmomyias" as an English name for members of the genus Tolmomyias, especially when species limits are drawn more finely, rather than "flatbill" or "flycatcher". I think it is patently more helpful as a grouping term, but we have to guard against clogging up bird names with tongue-twisters.

When the review of species limits in the Spot-winged Antbird Percnostola leucostigma is published, we will not be treated to the Foothill Spot-winged-Antbird etc. Nor will we ever see the "Foothill Percnostola", because, extrapolating from my reasoning in point 1), there would be too many changes required across the genus, there would be unsightly mouthfuls like the "Allpahuayo Percnostola" (until such time as the group is subdivided into constituent genera), and no end of confusion if Schistocichla is reinstated. In cases such as Tolmomyias and Percnostola we have to consider the final option ...

3) The creation of new names. I realise disruption is anathema, but I think a brief and bloody revolution on a very limited scale - can save us from centuries of cumbersome or confusing usage. It might also lead to a few names that are attractive, or at least meaningful and distinctive. As an example, why not call the members of the Spot-winged Antbird complex the "Stream-Antbirds"? Not universally correct, but not bad in terms of ecological merit. More comprehensively accurate than "antbird" ever was. What about "Broadbill-Flycatchers" for Tolmomyias? No more complex than foliage-gleaner. Or just call them "Widebills" and in a couple of decades everyone would love you for it. Given the current mindset, I do not imagine this suggestion will find much favour, but I urge the committee to be bold in those rare cases where it finds itself backed into a corner. I fully agree that stability is paramount, but where change is necessary, a little creativity now might propagate clarity and stability later.

Returning to the genus Hypocnemis, the reason I peeped my head in here in the first place, I would suggest the following names:

(1) nominate/notaea: Guianan Warbling-Antbird
(2) flavescens/perflava: Imeri Warbling-Antbird
(3) peruviana/saturata: Peruvian Warbling-Antbird
(4) subflava/collinsi: Yellow-breasted Warbling-Antbird
(5) ochrogyna: Rondônian Warbling-Antbird
(6) striata/implicata/affinis: Striated Warbling-Antbird
Plus the following:
(7) H. hypoxantha: Yellow-browed Warbling-Antbird

In this case, the compound name seems to be the best option. I would prefer "Peruvian" to "Western" for peruviana/saturata mostly because I like linkage between the specific name and the English name where suitable. In this case much of the range lies in Peru, and we can use the same brain-shelf to store "Peruvian" and "peruviana". This is useful for those of us with a shortage of cerebral shelves. I wouldn't just stick to endemics: I don't see anyone struggling with the concept of seeing Bolivian Tyrannulets in south Peru. However, this line of reasoning does not apply to cases where the specific name happens to invoke a country or province marginal to the range of the species, and let's not try it with Turquoise Tanager or Paradise Tanager. For a similar reason (English name translating the scientific name where appropriate) I would choose Striated Warbling-Antbird for Hypocnemis striata. Or maybe Spix's Warbling-Antbird. Not Eastern Warbling-Antbird, which seems too vague, and not especially accurate.

I would also prefer Yellow-breasted Warbling-Antbird for subflava/collinsi because in this case the descriptive term is more helpful than the geographic term "Foothills". Half of the range of this species, if not more, lies in the level Amazonian lowlands, but both races have distinctive yellow breasts. This mixes up geographical names with descriptive names, and maybe a patronym thrown in, but I think this is not a problem. Each name in each complex should be chosen on its merits rather than by any standard rule.

In summary, I echo the plea that we should be flexible and creative in choosing the best English-name options from the outset. The time to get this right is now, and the place to get it right is the SACC list. Good luck!

- Joe Tobias



additional comments from Stiles (Dec. 2005:

"Joe Tobias brings up a valid point. A number of new names have been proposed and in some cases, adopted more or less widely in recent literature as they are distinctly better than older names bestowed by those with no personal experience with the birds in question (other than museum skins).  In some cases we have ended up adopting them, in others not. It is worth noting that many (most?) young ornithologists (as well as the vast majority of birders) have little grounding in formal taxonomy or sistematics, and normally use English names in their publications. A number of our opinions in this respect have been prefaced, "if we were starting from scratch" or "X name has the advantage of widespread use in the past, Y name is better but only used in some recent literature". What we decide will surely affect the ornithological literature as well as birders. To what extent are we constrained to adopt inferior, "established" names for stability's stake and to what extent should we adopt better but younger names with an eye to stability in the future (but hopefully avoiding the pitfall of "every time around, a little bit better" that would lead to chaos)? Not easy questions, and perhaps we'll still wind up using our best judgment (and will differ) in one or another case. All in all, we haven't done so badly -- the main question being whether we might do even better with slightly more explicit or slightly different criteria?"