Proposal (184) to South American Classification Committee



Change English name of Cnipodectes subbrunneus


Cnipodectes subbrunneus has been given the English name "Brownish Twistwing" in most recent leading textbooks (e.g. Ridgely & Tudor, 1994; Ridgely & Greenfield, 2001; Fitzpatrick, 2004) and some other publications (e.g. Lopez-Lanus, 2000). However, older works (e.g. Hilty & Brown 1986), the checklist of the birds of the world (Dickinson, 2003) and regional checklists (Rodner et al., 2000; Salaman et al., 2001) have used the name "Brownish Flycatcher". This species has also been referred to as "Brown Flycatcher" (e.g. Wetmore, 1972). The current draft of the SACC checklist states that a proposal is needed for the English name of this species.


Those who have observed Cnipodectes in the hand or in a museum will have noted its unusual primaries, which really do appear superficially as if they have been twisted around the mid-shaft. Although various other tyrannids, cotingids and piprids have modified primaries (e.g. in Mionectes, Xenopsaris, Lipaugus and Machaeropterus), no other genus of which I am aware shows this bizarre form of primary modification. Interestingly, there are reports of an undescribed Cnipodectes from Peru: see and photograph at which is being proposed to be described as a "twistwing", suggesting that it too may have similarly modified primaries. The names "Brown Flycatcher" and "Brownish Flycatcher" do little to distinguish Cnipodectes from other tyrannids, a very large number of which are brown or brownish. Zimmer (1939) further noted that the toe structure of Cnipodectes suggests a relationship to the Pipridae, not the Tyrannidae. The name "Twistwing" would work in either family, unlike "Flycatcher".


The case for majority usage of "Brownish Flycatcher" vs. "Brownish Twistwing" in the published scientific literature appears to be a tie. Turning to less formal publications, a Google search showed 172 hits for Brownish Twistwing and 423 for Brownish Flycatcher, suggesting that the latter may be more widely used. The HBW treatment may, however present a sea change towards the use of Twistwing, given the impact of that book and the fact that the relevant chapter was not authored by Robert Ridgely, the main proponent of this name to date. "Brownish Twistwing" also has the advantage of being family-neutral and is a more informative and original name in a family plagued with English name homogeneity. A "yes" vote would be for "Brownish Twistwing". A "no" vote would be to retain "Brownish Flycatcher".



DICKINSON, E. C. (ed.). 2003. The Howard and Moore complete checklist of the birds of the World, Revised and enlarged 3rd Edition. Christopher Helm, London, 1040 pp.

FITZPATRICK, J. W. 2004. Family Tyrannidae (tyrant-flycatchers). Pp. 170-462 in "Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 9. Cotingas to pipits and wagtails." (J. del Hoyo et al., eds.). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

LOPEZ-LANUS, B. 2000. An unusual altitudinal record of the Brownish Twistwing Cnipodectes subbrunneus. Cotinga 12 (2000): 74.

RIDGELY, R. S., AND G. TUDOR. 1994. The birds of South America, vol. 2. Univ. Texas Press, Austin.

RIDGELY , R. S., AND P. J. GREENFIELD. 2001. The birds of Ecuador. Vol. I. Status, distribution, and taxonomy. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

RODNER, C., M. LENTINO, AND R. RESTALL. 2000. Checklist of the birds of northern South America. Yale University Press.

SALAMAN, P., T. CUADROS, J. G. JARAMILLO & W. H. WEBER. 2001. Lista de Chequeo de las Aves de Colombia. Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología, Medellín, Colombia.

WETMORE, A. 1972. The birds of the Republic of Panamá, part 3. Smithsonian Misc. Collect., vol. 150.

ZIMMER, J. 1939. Studies of Peruvian birds, No. 31. Notes on the genera Myiotriccus, Pyrrhomyias, Myiophobus, Onychorhynchus, Platyrinchus, Cnipodectes, Sayornis, and Nuttallornis. American Museum Novitates 1043: 1-15.


Thomas Donegan, October 2005





Comments from Remsen: "NO (barely). I like the clever name Twistwing and could be talked out of a NO vote on this after HBW adopted it. For now, I'll stick with Flycatcher for the sake of historical stability. One disagreement I have is that "Brownish Flycatcher" does not distinguish this bird from other tyrannids. Ridgway (1907), who first used the name (or actually "Brown Flycatcher", but that name "preoccupied" by Muscicapa dauurica), knew what he was doing. Although a myriad of small flycatchers are various shades of greenish, olive, olive brown, rufous, and reddish brown, none is really as truly solid BROWN as Cnipodectes. A browse (or is it brownse?) through our synoptic series produced only Elaenia pelzelni, Hemitriccus obsoletus, and Contopus pertinax \ as rivals in their overwhelmingly stunning brownosity, brownacity, and brownaceousnous, and these three do not overlap with Cnipodectes in either range or habitat. So, given how miserably similar most small tyrannids are, and how difficult it is to come up with a distinctive descriptive name, "Brownish Flycatcher" isn't so bad, and actually pretty good -- after-all, I haven't heard any rumblings about "Greenish Elaenia," "Yellow-green Tyrannulet," or "Yellow-olive Flycatcher," all of which must make the name-improvers lose sleep.


"Additional older literature that used Brownish Flycatcher:


"1955 (Eisenmann, Middle America) = "Brownish Flycatcher"
1964 (Meyer de Schauensee) = "Brownish Flycatcher"
1966 (Meyer de Schauensee) = "Brownish Flycatcher"
1970 (Meyer de Schauensee) = "Brownish Flycatcher"
1976 (Ridgely, Birds of Panama) = "Brownish Flycatcher"
1982 (Parker et al., Peru) = "Brownish Flycatcher"


Additional comments from Donegan: "In the proposal, I said that the names "Brown Flycatcher" and "Brownish Flycatcher" do little to distinguish Cnipodectes from other tyrannids, a very large number of which are brown or brownish. I agree with Van's point on the relative brown-ness of the bird and perhaps did not express this point as well as I could have. The point here revolves around Flycatcher vs. Twistwing, as "Brownish" would remain. The term "Flycatcher" does not distinguish this unusual genus from other "Flycatchers", a term that straddles many genera (and indeed two families). In the Neotropics, "Flycatchers" are big (e.g. Megarynchus), medium-sized (e.g. Myiozetetes, Empidonax) and small (e.g. Mionectes, Leptopogon, Tolmomyias, Myiophobus), brightly marked (Pyrocephalus) and dull (Contopus), but none has a "twisted wing" like this. (I am of course not proposing new English names be given to all those other genera!) Although discussions as to appropriateness of name are interesting and of relevance, the main argument here is one of stability and of which name has become more accepted, which, as stated is a finely balanced issue."


Comments from Stiles: "YES, in part out of cussedness and in part because I like the name, which does have the advantages of unique applicability and much recent usage. I don´t know if anyone is seriously advocating placing Cnipodectes in Pipridae, but if by some stretch of the imagination such were to occur, "brown (ish) manakin" could be a bit confusing as Schiffornis turdinus was for long considered a manakin and is certainly pretty "brown"!"


Comments from Jaramillo: "YES - One day, the votes on English names will end correct? At some point, we will have all the good names that are stable and everyone agrees are not misleading, right? In this case, to have such an odd and unique structure on a bird not be reflected in the name, and leave it as Brownish Flycatcher seems like a lost opportunity to me. It is memorable."


Comments from Zimmer: "YES". As the proposal's author points out, the appropriate "Brownish" modifier is not in play; only the uninspired "Flycatcher". "Twistwing" is not only clever, it calls attention to a unique character of the bird, which, although not something you would notice in the field, does produce the dramatic mechanical wing whir that you hear when the bird is displaying or roaring back-and-forth past you in response to playback. Furthermore, with the recent discovery of what appears to be a new species of Cnipodectes in SE Peru, we actually have the opportunity to cement a name change that could convey even more information regarding the relationships of the bird to another species (and hopefully, the describers of the new species will suggest "Twistwing" as part of their English name construction!)."


Comments from Robbins: "YES. I fully endorse using the very appropriate English name "twistwing" for Cnipodectes."


Comments from Nores: "YES. Brownish Flycatcher no significa nada, hay muchos flycatchers con esas características. En todo caso podría ser Brown Flycatcher, pero pienso que Brownish Twistwing es mucho más apropiado."


Comments from Pacheco: "Alinho-me, neste caso, a defesa de Remsen à estabilidade histórica proporcionada pela manutenção de "Brownish Flycatcher . Este é o nome em Remsen & Parker (1989) e A.O.U (1998)."


Response from Remsen: Contra Donegan, the impetus for the Ridgely-Tudor change to “Twistwing” was indeed that “Brownish” was considered “prosaic” and that many flycatchers were “brownish”, which is incorrect, contra Manuel’s comments.