Proposal (194) to South American Classification Committee


Change English name of the Schiffornis


Proposal: This proposal is intended to stabilize the English name of the Schiffornis, a genus that has been assigned historically to each of the Pipridae and the Cotingidae and is currently "incertae sedis". Species of this genus currently have the English name "XXX Schiffornis" on the baseline.


DiscussionSchiffornis English names used to be quite easy when the genus was considered part of the Pipridae (per Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps, 1978; Hilty & Brown 1986, etc.):


S. major: "Greater Manakin": it's a manakin, but it's big.

S. turdina: "Thrush-like Manakin": it's a manakin but it's big and brown like a thrush.

S. virescens: "Greenish Manakin": it's a manakin and it's greenish.


However, morphological analyses (Prum & Lanyon 1989) and genetic data (Chesser 2004) each point to the Schiffornis not being true Pipridae. Members of this genus cluster in molecular analyses with Tityra, Laniocera, Iodopleura, Laniisoma, Xenopsaris and Pachyramphus (Johansson et al., 2002; Chesser, 2004), this group being sister to the Pipridae (Chesser, 2004). Much support was evident in comments in proposal # 133 ("remove 'Schiffornis group' from the Cotingidae") for use of the family Tityridae for Schiffornis and its relatives although a proposal to do so has not yet been raised. The taxonomic position of this group is discussed in further in proposal #133. This proposal assumes that the Schiffornis group would either be classified as Incertae Sedis or Tityridae, as a majority of responses on proposal #133 preferred such an approach to either Cotingidae or Pipridae.


Given uncertainty over the family of the genus Schiffornis over such a prolonged period, a family-neutral name has been proposed by various persons, presumably in the interests of future stability. "Mourner" was first proposed as an English name for this genus in the context of it not being a manakin to reflect its relationship with Laniocera (Prum & Lanyon, 1989, followed by Ridgely & Tudor, 1994). The Latin generic epithet "Schiffornis" was later used as an English name for this genus by Ridgely & Greenfield (2001), Salaman et al. (2001), Rodner et al. (2001), Dickinson (2003), Hilty (2003) and others.


I personally find the generic name Schiffornis as an English word to be particularly unsatisfying. Schiff was a colleague of Napoleon's nephew, C.L.J.L. Bonaparte, who described the genus Schiffornis. Although active at a time in which ornithological discovery and the description of new bird species from the Neotropics was at a peak, Schiff was not a prolific publisher and described no bird species of which I am aware (though stand to be corrected). However, Schiff was apparently responsible for the manuscript for the description of the genus Pipromorpha (Bonaparte, 1854 or Gray, 1855, discussed further in Olson, 1995) for the red-and-yellow Mionectes and may have contributed to other work published by Bonaparte, probably hence the acknowledgement through the naming of this genus. As an English name, "Ornis" means bird and "Schiff" is the name of a person, thus "Schiffbird" would surely be more appropriate (if ugly)? The only other example of birds on the current SACC baseline of which I am aware with "ornis" as part of the English moniker are the Casiornis, perhaps due to the linguistic clumsiness in use of genera with this suffix as English words. In my view, Latin names should only be used as English names as a last resort in the absence of another better name, Schiffornis being a particularly good example of a word that conveys little useful or memorable information in an English context.


The term "Mourner" for the Schiffornis is also not ideal as these birds do not so much mourn as whistle (although admittedly only a few Rhytipterna of the current Mourners do truly make vocalize akin to "mourning"). Furthermore, the true Mourners (sensu Rhytipterna) are currently assigned to the Tyrannidae (although Laniocera is in the Schiffornis group, as is Laniisoma, which has also been termed a "Mourner" by some). English name family-straddling is arguably better avoided where possible, though exists.


If one were starting from scratch, the name "whistlers" or "whistling-birds" would arguably be appropriate for these birds (although the former is "occupied" by the old world Corvidae genus Pachycephala), as the Schiffornis are united, and often first identified in the field, by their loud whistling calls. Such a name could also arguably be used for Laniisoma and Laniocera. The passing similarity of "Schiff" to the Spanish word to whistle "chiflar" and its derivatives is also rather cute in this context (and "chiflero" would, I presume, be a good Spanish name). However, the invention of a further word for this genus is arguably better avoided here given that a name that works is already in frequent usage.


A GOOGLE straw poll using the English name "Thrush-like XX" (this being chosen as a widespread species with a stable name) as a connected word string plus the genus name Schiffornis shows the following: Thrush-like Schiffornis "about 800"; Thrush-like Manakin 139; Thrush-like Mourner 124. This suggests that, whatever its faults, the name "Schiffornis" as an English name really seems to have caught on (unlike, for example, the use of "Neopipo" as an English name: see proposal #187).


If Schiffornis is endorsed as an English name, attentions can turn to the English names of the species in this genus. "Greater Schiffornis" as an English name is a particular problem as S. major is smaller than its congeners (cf. larger than most manakins, as formerly classified, discussed further in Ridgely & Tudor, 1994), with "Varzea Schiffornis" currently used on the baseline but a proposal marked as needed.


Recommendation: A "No" vote would retain "Schiffornis". A "Yes" vote would be for "Mourner", the other recently used alternative, or something else. Despite "Schiffornis" as an English name being a particularly poor one, I would recommend a "No" vote to endorse and stabilize its use as the lesser of many evils.


Reference not currently in the SACC reference list:


Olson S.L. 1995. Review of "History and Nomenclature of Avian Family Names", Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, volume 122, 1994, by W.J. Bock. Auk 112: 539-546.



Thomas Donegan, November 2005





Comments from Remsen: "NO. I agree with Donegan that Schiffornis seems to be the least annoying of the choices. North American AOU also uses Schiffornis."


Comments from Stiles: "NO. Like Van, I'll go with Schiffornis as it implies the least tinkering and the alternatives are at least as unsatisfying aesthetically."


Comments from Robbins: "NO. I think Schiffornis as an English name is quite appropriate; in fact, I wish that generic names would be used more often in those cases where a current English name is either misleading or helps clarify a monophyletic clade in a large family. Thus, a NO vote."


Comments from Zimmer: "NO. Let's stick with Schiffornis as an English group name. "Manakin" is erroneous, and "Mourner" is at best ambiguous (and at worst misleading). Schiffornis is informative, and helps cut through the clutter. I agree with Mark that using Latin names as the English group name is actually desirable in many cases (particularly within large families such as Tyrannidae, where an abundance of tyrants, tyrannulets, and flycatchers just leads to confusion in English names)."


Comments from Jaramillo: "NO - I like Schiffornis, and see nothing wrong with using genera as English names. People adapt, gringos can handle it, particularly if it is an informative name. In this case I worry more about the Spanish-speaking guides and their tendency to call them Eschiffornis! I need to put that silly happy face here to make it clear that I am joking on the last comment ."


Comments from Nores: "YES. Aunque no estoy seguro que "Mourner" sea el nombre más apropiado para el género, poner el nombre científico al nombre común me parece muy poco apropiado. ¿Que pasaría, por ejemplo, si un estudio genético mostrara que Schiffornis es congenérico con otro género que tiene prioridad, por ejemplo, Piprites? ¿Se cambiaría nuevamente el nombre común a las tres especies por Greater Piprites, Thrush-like Piprites y Greenish Piprites? El nombre común es justamente una forma de nombrar a las especies para que pueda ser usado por "birdwatchers", campesinos y gente en general, pero si se introducen los nombres científicos en los comunes se pierde ese sentido. Yo no puedo hacer demasiados comentarios sobre los criterios usados para poner los nombres en inglés, pero si de mí dependiera sacaría todos los nombres científicos de los nombres en inglés de las aves. En español, afortunadamente casi no se ha usado el nombre científico para los nombres comunes, salvo en muy pocos casos en que el nombre científico ha sido puesto en relación al nombre común ya existente, por ejemplo: Suirirí Común (Suiriri suiriri) o Colibrí Grande (Colibri coruscans)."