Proposal (156) to South American Classification Committee
Change English Name of Skutchia borbae to "Pale-faced Antbird"
Effect on South American Check-list: This proposal would change the English name of a species on our list, Skutchia borbae, from "Pale-faced Bare-eye", to "Pale-faced Antbird".
Background: Hellmayr (1907), described Phlegopsis borbae from a single presumed immature male bird collected near Borba, on the right bank of the lower Rio Madeira, Amazonas, Brazil. In assigning the species to Phlegopsis, Hellmayr noted similarities between the type specimen of borbae and females of P. erythroptera, while noting also an important difference: whereas the known species of Phlegopsis were characterized by a wide area of bright red, bare skin around the eye, borbae differed in having grayish-yellow skin around the eye. Hellmayr quoted the collector of the type specimen of borbae (W. Hoffmanns) as saying "wide naked space round the eye light grayish-yellow", when, in fact, Hoffmanns noted on the specimen label: "skin on eyes: 1'yellowgray". Cory and Hellmayr (1924) continued to treat borbae as a Phlegopsis, and used the English name of "Borba Bare-eye". As of 1966, the species was known from only two specimens, the presumed immature male that constituted the type, and an adult female from Vila Braga on the left bank of the lower Rio Tapajós; the adult male of borbae was unknown. The species remained unknown in life, but underwent a transformation in its English name when Meyer de Schauensee (1966) coined the name of Pale-faced Bare-eye.
In 1966, Ed Willis became the first ornithologist to study borbae in life. His observations indicated that borbae was an obligate army ant follower, but that it was misplaced in the genus Phlegopsis. As noted by Willis (1968), the most striking characteristic of the genus Phlegopsis is the red or red-orange bare ring around the eye. Although many antbirds from different genera have bluish or pale greenish bare skin surrounding the eye, only Phlegopsis nigromaculata and P. erythroptera have bare red faces. Willis re-examined the type specimen of borbae, and noted that there was no "wide naked space" around the eye, but that there was a patch of stiffened black feathers above the eye and a large conspicuous patch of whitish feathers on the lores. These patches of feathers restricted the bare space to a narrow area behind and below the eye, a feature that Willis confirmed for living borbae, which showed only a small triangle of whitish-gray skin behind the eye. Willis went on to note that the dull cinnamon-rufous to brown colors of both male and female borbae were quite unlike the predominantly black plumages of adult males of the other species of Phlegopsis. He also noted that borbae lacked the strikingly patterned upperparts of those species, but did have a pectoral band of dusky and whitish bars not found in either sex of either species of Phlegopsis.
Noting that borbae and adult females of P. erythroptera were very similar in general coloration, Willis (1968) speculated that Hellmayr also noted this similarity and assumed that the male type of borbae was immature (and by extension, that the adult male would be a black bird with a red face). Willis made the same assumption until he encountered pairs of borbae in life, and found that males and females were similarly plumaged. Upon reexamining the type specimen, Willis felt that the pattern of molt on the bird suggested a molt from one adult plumage into another. Hoffmans did not mark "immature" on the label. Willis reached the conclusion that Hellmayr had erred in assuming the type was an immature bird. Furthermore, Willis's field observations showed that no borbae of either sex or any age had a predominantly black plumage or any bare red or orange skin around the eye.
Because of this, Willis made the following argument concerning the name of borbae:
"Therefore, adult borbae differ strikingly from the red-faced antbirds of the genus Phlegopsis in facial characteristics as well as in the russet coloration of the male. Rather than dilute the distinctiveness of the red-faced genus Phlegopsis by leaving a quite different bird in it, I prefer to place the Pale-faced Antbird in a new genus, to be called Skutchia."
Willis did not elaborate on his shift in the English name (to "Pale-faced Antbird") of borbae, but the logical extension of his argument is that he felt the name of "Bare-eye" should be reserved for members of the genus Phlegopsis.
Analysis: Following Willis (1968), the transfer of borbae from Phlegopsis to the monotypic genus Skutchia has been universally adopted. Most authors have also followed the suggested change in the English name (e.g. Ridgely & Tudor 1994, Clements 2000, Zimmer & Isler 2003), but there have been some holdouts (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990), and borbae remains "Pale-faced Bare-eye" on the SACC base list.
I think that Willis's reasoning is sound, and that by retaining the name of "Pale-faced Bare-eye" we perpetuate confusion regarding the relationships of this species within the family. The group name of "Bare-eye" is more informative if it is applied only to species in the same genus -- it would be analogous to applying the name "Kittiwake" to a Larus gull. The name "Bare-eye" is particularly inappropriate given that borbae does not have particularly prominent bare skin surrounding the eye, especially when compared to many other antbirds that do (e.g. Myrmeciza fortis, Phaenostictus, and all Rhegmatorhina species), and yet are still not called "Bare-eyes". Furthermore, the name of "Pale-faced Bare-eye" is relatively recent; it's appearance in the literature barely pre-dated Willis's paper suggesting the change to "Pale-eyed Antbird". The name "Borba Bare-eye" had a longer history.
Recommendation: For the above reasons, I recommend a "YES" vote on changing the English name of Skutchia borbae to "Pale-faced Antbird".
CLEMENTS, J. F. 2000. Birds of the world: a checklist. Fifth Edition. Ibis Publishing Company, Vista, California.
CORY, C. B., AND C. E. HELLMAYR. 1924. Catalog of birds of the Americas. Publications of the Field Museum of Natural History (Zoological Series) 13(3): 369 pp.
HELLMAYR, C. E. 1907. Bull. British Orn. Club. 19:53.
MEYER DE SCHAUENSEE, R. 1966. The species of birds of South America, with their distribution. Livingston Publishing Company, Narberth, Pennsylvania.
MEYER DE SCHAUENSEE, R. 1970. A guide to the birds of South America. Livingston Publishing Company, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (Reprinted by International Council for Bird Preservation 1982).
RIDGELY, R. S., AND G. TUDOR. 1994. Birds of South America, Volume II: the suboscine passerines. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
SIBLEY, C. G., AND B. L. MONROE, JR. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
WILLIS, E. O. 1968. Taxonomy and behavior of Pale-faced Antbirds. Auk 85:253-264.
ZIMMER, K. J., AND M. L. ISLER. 2003. Family Thamnophilidae (Typical Antbirds). Pp. 448681 in: DEL HOYO, J., ELLIOTT, A., & CHRISTIE, D. A. eds. (2003). Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 8. Broadbills to Tapaculos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Kevin J. Zimmer, December 2004
Comments from Remsen: "YES. I am typically recalcitrant on such changes, regardless of degree of improvement. But with its use in HBW and Kevin's outlining why the old name is misleading, I'd say there is no point in sticking to the old one."
Comments from Robbins: "YES. I vote "yes" for changing the English name of Skutchia borbae to Pale-faced Antbird. This name change makes sense, especially given that molecular data eventually may demonstrate that borbae may be imbedded within Rhegmatorhina (at least I wouldn't find that surprising given its plumage and distributional patterns)."
Comments from Jaramillo: "YES. I don't like fiddling with these names, but in this case, it appears that the English name is born from an error in understanding the relationship of this bird."
Comments from Stiles: "YES. Since it's not a "bare-eye" in the sense of Phlegopsis or Rhegmatorhina, use of this name for borbae is decidedly misleading: "Antbird " is more appropriate."
Comments from Pacheco: "YES. Neste caso, a incoerência do nome tradicional justifica plenamente a mudança proposta."
Comments from Nores: "SI. SI, totalmente de acuerdo. La pequeña área de color gris que tiene esta especie en la cara, difiere notablemente de las de Phlegopsis y otras especies de Rhegmatorhina y Phaenostictus. De todos modos, no parece justificado que solo las especies del género Phlegopsis sean llamados "bare-eye" por tener esta parte de color rojo, mientras que sean llamadas "antbirds" (un nombre generalizado e inespecífico en Formicariidae) las que tienen la cara desnuda de otro color. Yo pienso que sería apropiado llamar "bare-eye" a todas las especies que tienen una gran área desnuda en la cara."