Proposal (#260) to South American Classification Committee

Proposals 260 a to d: Change English names of Turdus nudigenis, T. grayi, T. assimilis, and T. albicollis to "Thrush"

There are two general issues involved here. Further, two of the possible species names here are also names given to old world species.

1. Principle: are T. nudigenis etc. "Thrushes" or "Robins"?

Turdus migratorius
is the "American Robin". The early European colonisers of North America, presumably on seeing a bird with a red breast similar to the European Robin Erithacus rubecula, adopted the same name for this species. Some other small Eurasian chats (which are generally colorful, reddish, red-brown or otherwise similar morphologically to the original robin E. rubecula) also use "Robin" as part of the vernacular name: e.g. some Iriana, Luscinia and Cercotrichas species.

Turdus nudigenis, T. assimilis and T. albicollis are all bog standard brown Turdus thrushes. T. grayi has a reddish (terracotta) breast, but is otherwise a fairly typical thrush in plumage. Clement & Hathaway (2000) elucidated some vocal and wing morphology similarities between the taxa known as "Robins" which may explain the alternative version of their vernacular names. However, such similarities (if real) for the three species in question here are likely to be independently derived or ancestral. The "Robins" occurring in South America do not even come close to forming a monophyletic group (Voelker et al. 2007). T. migratorius is not part of the new world Turdus clade. T. albicollis and T. assimilis are sisters. T. nudigenis and T. grayi are also closely related to one another, but not certainly sisters. However, the T. albicollis/assimilis clade is rather distant from the one containing T. nudigenis and T. grayi. In my view, the English name for T. migratorius should be restricted to its peculiar facts and, possibly, close relatives. However, this is not a debate about the other "Robins" on the AOU list: just about these four.

2. Usage

AOU and various North American and Central American publications use "Robin" for various non-migratorius Turdus species, including, on occasion, T. assimilis and T. grayi. However, very few texts relating to South America since the 1960s have used "Robin" for Turdus nudigenis, T. assimilis or T. albicollis.

My understanding is that Peters and other earlier authors used "Robin" for these species. A change to "Thrush" was introduced by Meyer de Schauensee in his 1964 Colombia guide. He then used the name again in Birds of South America (Meyer de Schauensee 1970). Ridgely & Tudor (1989) in Birds of South America, Hilty & Brown (1986) Birds of Colombia, Hilty (2003) Birds of Venezuela, Clement & Hathaway's Thrushes, various checklists dealing with the region (Rodner et al. 2000; Salaman et al. 2001) and many international texts (e.g. Clement 2000; IOC 2006 and all BirdLife publications) all use "Thrush" for Turdus nudigenis, T. assimilis and T. albicollis and, where found in the relevant region, T. grayi. Howell & Webb (1995), possibly the leading Central American field guide, also call all species subject to this proposal and found in that area "Thrushes". I would argue that the SACC position does not reflect either the status quo nomenclature for these birds or prevailing modern usage.

T. grayi and T. assimilis each occur in the USA, the latter as a vagrant. NACC has adopted "Robin" for the name for these species and such names are used in some (but not all) of the field guide literature dealing with Northern and Central America.

Among all available names, a Google straw poll shows a majority use of: White-necked Thrush, Bare-eyed Thrush (which is a synonym: see below), Clay-colored Robin and White-throated Robin (which is also a synonym: see below). The two predominantly South American species are predominantly called "Thrushes". The two species occurring in southern USA are terms "Robins" generally there but such usage is not prevalent in recent South American texts.

3. English name conflicts

T. nudigenis: As pointed out in a previous version of this proposal by Dan Lane, changing "Bare-eyed Robin" to "Bare-eyed Thrush" would conflict with the widely used English name of the African Turdus tephronotus. Recent authors who have come up against this same problem (Sibley and Monroe 1990, Clement 2000); have changed the name to "Yellow-eyed Thrush" and Collar (2005 [HBW]) to "Spectacled Thrush". On principle, "Spectacled" is arguably better in that the more distinguishing morphological feature that is yellow is in the orbital region whilst many thrushes have yellow irises. However, "Yellow-eyed" is more widely used of the two, given "Spectacled"'s novelty. "Bare-eyed" is probably the better name descriptively. It could be argued that retaining "Robin" for T. nudigenis would be preferable to the alternative of adopting a relatively novel English name for the species. I will raise a series of proposals to adopt of one of the three available names if "Thrush" is approved for this species, such that questions as to whether "Bare-eyed", "Spectacled" or "Yellow-eyed" are better can be taken off the table for present purposes.

T. assimilis: The current SACC name for T. assimilis, "White-throated Robin", is the same as that used for the Eurasian species Irania gutturalis, long thought to be a Turdidae, now considered possibly in the Muscicapidae. No alternative vernacular name currently exists for that species, of which I am aware. Even BOU, who are more than content to change long-established names for international reasons (e.g. Monk Vulture, Hedge Accentor, Pied Avocet) have no alternative name for this species. Changing T. assimilis from "Robin" to "Thrush" would seem a simple way of doing away with English name conflicts. I realise that there is certain international posturing involved in these sorts of decisions and SACC could assert that Irania gutturalis' name should better be changed to something else - as it is not a true robin either. However, the simplest approach would be to adopt the alternative name for the Turdus species, given that one exists and is widely used.


260a: Change T. nudigenis from "Bare-eyed Robin" to "Bare-eyed Thrush". On balance, YES. A reasonable approach could be to leave this as a "Robin" due to the pre-occupation of this name by another species and the uninformative (Yellow-eyed) or very novel (Spectacled) alternatives. This and T. grayi are closely related to one another and could be subject to the same conservative treatment. However, this species is called a "Thrush" in almost all South American literature. The SACC approach is the exception, not the status quo, on the Thrush/Robin point for this species.

260b: Change T. grayi from "Clay-colored Robin" to "Clay-colored Thrush". I am ambivalent about this one. It is an NACC area bird. NACC chose "Robin" for it. Unlike for T. assimilis, there is no synonymy involved. "Thrush" would be a better name on principle but "Robin" is rather entrenched and this bird is terracotta (almost red) breasted.

260c: Change T. assimilis from "White-throated Robin" to "White-throated Thrush". A strong YES. Notwithstanding the NACC position, this seems like the most sensible way of removing English name conflicts and is a better description of the bird in question. This approach would also be consistent with 260d as T. albicollis and T. assimilis are sisters.

260d: Change T. albicollis from "White-necked Robin" to "White-necked Thrush". A strong YES. To reflect the status quo nomenclature, prevailing usage and a proper description of the bird in question.

Thomas Donegan, January 2007

(updated, T. grayi added, and split into 4 sub-proposals: March 2007)


Comments from Stiles: "YES to all.  There has been little rhyme or reason to the use of "Robin" for various brown thrushes, except that what would seem to be a desire to call them "robins" because they remind North Americans of the bird they see hopping around on their lawns.  Given that many (all?) are not particularly closely related to T. migratorius, there is little use in implying that they are sister groups or species by using "robin" for any of them.  As for T. grayi, the "terra-cotta" bit doesn´t wash - the widespread race of grayi in Colombia is in fact much "grayer" than that in Central America.. here, I think, is a justifiable case for parting company with the NACC, however heinous that may sound! Robins have red breasts, let it go at that!"

Comments from Zimmer: "YES. Let's just call everything other than American Robin a thrush and be done with the confusion!"

Comments from Jaramillo: "YES - Undue confusion has been caused by the use of the Robin name for these various Neotropical thrushes. I see no good reason to keep Robin for them, it just causes confusion, and that overrides any issue of stability of names for me in this case."

Comments from Robbins: "YES, refer to all the Neotropical Turdus as thrushes, instead of robins. Long overdue."