Proposal (335) to South American Classification Committee


Change English name of Gallinula chloropus from "Common Moorhen" to "Common Gallinule"


Effect on SACC: This proposal would change the English name of a species on our list from a "globalized" name back to a "New World" name that was in use in this hemisphere for many decades.


Background: Gallinula chloropus was known in the W. Hemisphere as "Common Gallinule" in the 1957 AOU checklist but was changed to "Common Moorhen" in a Supplement sometime in advance of the 1983 AOU checklist. For more than a century prior to the 1983 list, it had been known as either the Florida Gallinule or Common Gallinule, but always a Gallinule. The change was a concession to the BOU to keep the "Moorhen" in the name; the species there had been known "forever" as the Moorhen.


"Analysis": From before I joined NACC (AOUCL) in 1984 through the present, if I were to pick one name change that angered people more than any other, this is it. As an AOUCLC member, I have limply tried to defend the name in that it emphasizes that Purple Gallinule is not in the same genus. The response I usually get (besides "so what!") is that ... how could AOU have changed the name away from Gallinule when the genus is Gallinula? How can a Porphyrula be called a Gallinule but a Gallinula called a Moorhen??? The taxonomically oriented further point out that this is the type species for the genus, and so if any species in the world was to be called Gallinule, this is it. Those who don't care about the taxonomy think that the name Moorhen itself is totally absurd. The species has nothing to do with moors, per se, and even if it did, we don't have any gosh-darned moors in this hemisphere. And then there's the "hen" part. What is that all about, they ask? This is the point when I mumble something about how quaint the British name is and try to change the subject after making it clear that the change happened, of course, before my tenure on NACC. I cannot tell you how many times I've had this Moorhen-Gallinule conversation when the dreaded topic of changing English names comes up. I am reasonably certain that if we were to poll ornithologists and birders, this name change would get by far the most votes for the most unpopular change NACC ever made. Did I mention that this happened before I was on NACC?


The breaking point for me came when, at the Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Venezuela this year, even the Spanish-first speakers were ridiculing it and using it as an example of an absurd common name. To make matters worse, the endemic Neotropical species of Gallinula still retains the name Gallinule (Spot-flanked Gallinule, G. melanops). The credibility of NACC as a body capable of governing English name usage was questioned. [Yes, I mentioned to them that this change happened before I was on NACC.]


Although most Old World Gallinula are now called Something Moorhen, two Australian species are called Native-hen, so the genus itself already does not go by a single English name.


The globalizers will go ballistic if we backtrack on this one, and there will be some who say that, heck, we've lived with Moorhen for 25 years and to backtrack now looks bad. I am reasonably certain, however, that the vast majority of our clientele, professional and amateur, will welcome a return to a better and historically traditional name. In fact, many of you may have noticed that many people refuse to use Moorhen in the field anyway except to fill out official checklists, and that many state game agencies retain Gallinule.


At least four major books in South America have essentially blown off the AOU change and now use "Common Gallinule": Hilty & Brown (1986, Birds of Colombia), Fjeldså & Krabbe (1990, Birds of the High Andes), Haverschmidt & Mees (1994, Birds of Suriname), and Ridgely et al. (2001, Birds of Ecuador).


Recommendation: YES (my self-esteem in public circles is at stake) :).


Van Remsen, March 2008


Addendum: This proposal was recently rejected by NACC, although the majority (5-4) voted to accept the change and only 1 more vote would have resulted in passage. Although concordance between the two committees' English names is highly desirable, I note that NACC also rejected a proposal to change the English name of Microbates collaris from "their" Tawny-faced to "our" Half-collared as well as a proposal to change "their" White-winged Parakeet, only an introduced species in NACC area, to our Canary-winged. A SACC proposal to return to White-winged is pending and may pass, and I will likely submit a SACC proposal to change to Tawny-faced (neither name really has overwhelming historical precedent). Nonetheless, I no longer feel obligated to be in sync with NACC on English names.


Below are the comments from NACC on this proposal:


YES. Voting in favor of a flip-flop makes me feel like a politician, but then that could just be the Washington influence. In this case "gallinule" seems so much more appropriate than "moorhen" that it justifies whatever slings and arrows we have to endure for such a volte-face.


YES. I don't like to backtrack without good reason, but I have never gotten used to "moorhen" and the proposal makes some valid points (e.g., the name is not really standardized globally, and "gallinule" still is used in the Neotropics and by major books on South American birds). I likely would have voted "no" on the original proposal to change it to "moorhen," but that also happened before I joined the Committee.


YES. Perhaps this will cause some confusion as well as grumbling about us changing back to an earlier name, just when folks, at least some folks, were getting used to Moorhen. But, I feel the name should never have been changed in the first place. Nothing else in the genus gets called a Moorhen, so if we retained Moorhen, why do we need to call it the Common Moorhen when there is only one?


The Brits call everything else in the genus Gallinule, including the Purple Swamphen, which usurped our species (so it's American Purple Gallinule). Moreover, it's lilac, not purple. I thumbed through the habitat section of Cramp and see nothing about Common Moorhens liking moors. They are found around water, like everywhere else, although I must admit it's a bit startling to see them everywhere in the UK on park ponds, etc. But I've yet to see one on the moors. Red Grouse yes, but no Common Moorhens.


In weighing the various bad options, I'm persuaded to join Van's (and others) cause and restore clarity. I suppose this will be seen as a shot across the bow to the IOC's special committee. Maybe, but I think there is ample justification to return to the earlier name.


NO. We made our bed, and we need to lie in it. Too many have switched to the dark side, but it would give our committee a lot less credibility if we whimsically switch back and forth without any real reason aside from personal opinion.


NO. I grew up with "gallinule" and don't like "moorhen" any more than the rest of you, but there is merit in globalizing names of widespread taxa, and there is a large cost (in terms of Committee credibility) to vacillating on changes like this that are effectively arbitrary.


NO, because I am pretty confident that when someone does a proper study on the matter, they will find that G. chloropus has to be split into Old World and New World species. The vocal differences are much greater than those between many species. The point is that eventually we will have to change the name we've just changed to "American Gallinule" or something similar, so let's leave it be for now.




YES. I'm conflicted, but let's revert to Common Gallinule.


NO. This should never have been changed to Moorhen in the first place, but it was in 1983 in the 6th edition. After many years of personally grumbling about it and calling it a Gallinule, I've finally gotten used to it. Most of the birding world has probably forgotten it was even a gallinule. Within Gallinula there are several other Old World Moorhens, which are basically a big allospecies complex. The species in Gallinula that are not called Moorhens are the Australian native-hens and the South American Spot-flanked Gallinule. I would say that these species are all outside of the true "moorhens," which of course do not occur on moors, and I can imagine that Spot-flanked Gallinule might get resplit (no evidence, just a feeling). Given the range of moorhens out there, I really think it is a mistake to reverse ourselves on this. Moorhen is the status quo, and I am comfortable with it-finally.




Addendum #2: For what it's worth ... a Full Text search on "Common Moorhen" in SORA gives 66 results; a Full Text search on "Common Gallinule" and "Florida Gallinule" yields a combined total of 284 results. Therefore, historically, more literature uses Gallinule than Moorhen. A Google Scholar search yields 940 entries for "Common Moorhen" vs. 524 for "Common Gallinule" or "Florida Gallinule", but this of course includes European literature. Given the latter, and the antiquity of Florida Gallinule, I was surprised that it was this close.





Comments from Zimmer: "Free at last, free at last YES, YES and YES!, for all of the reasons reiterated by Van."


Comments from Robbins: "An emphatic YES!"


Comments from Stotz: "NO. I voted against this return to Gallinule in the North American committee, and I will vote against it here as well. I didn't like the change in 1983 and it took me a long while not to think of this bird as a Gallinule, but it has been 25 years now, and a large number of birders and ornithologists have never known it as anything other than a Moorhen. It should also be noted that in fact Common Gallinule is a relative neologism, as it was called Florida Gallinule in most of the early 20th century.  It is a member of a superspecies complex with the other included species known as Moorhens as well.  Elsewhere in its range, it will continue to be known as a moorhen, so going to Gallinule for just South America is counter-productive. If we are going to "fix" this, why not Louisiana Heron (what are the 3 colors of the Tricolored Heron?) or Olive-backed Thrush or Migrant Shrike. This bird is now known worldwide as Common Moorhen (except in England where it is Moorhen). I can see no value in reversing course on this, except to allow Van to show his face to elderly birders [that's most of us] who still talk about Desert Sparrows."


Comments from Stiles: "YES. A stentorian, exultant YES (I should mention that those nomenclatural mavericks Stiles and Skutch flatly refused to accept "moorhen" for the Costa Rican guide back in 1989, prompting at least one irate letter from the AOU committee in the BR (before Remsen) age. [Apropos of this, I might mention that I was the inventor of the "Tawny-faced" moniker for Microbates cinereiventris after looking in vain for half a collar (or even a quarter of one - at best it sports half a necklace) - I suggested it to Bob Ridgely who enthusiastically adopted it for his Bds. of Panamá) - hence I would unhesitatingly approve this change were it to come to a vote ... it has been used in virtually all recent pubs.]"


Comments from Jaramillo: "YES - Oh what a delight to at least voice a vote to rid us of one of the most ridiculous English names of a New World bird. They can call it a Moorhen in the Old World, where that makes sense, but not here. Furthermore having traveled to Britain last year, vocally those creatures they have out there sound nothing like the ones we have here. In time chloropus will be found to be comprised of more than one species, that is for sure. When that time comes would the name become American Moorhen???!!!! Let's not let that happen and revert to Common Gallinule and have that covered as well."


Comments from Thomas Donegan: "The text of the Proposal above and various SACC and AOU Committee Member comments refer to "Moorhen" being a poor name on account of the species not being found in moor habitats in Europe.  Notwithstanding that the species is sometimes found in small lakes and ponds in moors, the word 'moor' (the habitat) is not the derivation of the word 'Moorhen'.  The olde English name for this bird is 'Mere hen'.  'Mere' is also the origin of the word 'marsh' and is a name found in some UK wetland bird reserves (e.g. Martin Mere; Otmoor).  There are two words for this bird, one based on the Norse/Anglo-Saxon (Moorhen) and one based on the Latin / French (Gallinule).  We all put up with "nice" (Norse / Anglo-Saxon) and "beautiful" (Latin / French) within the same language, so why not moorhens and gallinules?  Seeking some logical basis for one name being better than the other is pretty futile; whilst other arguments are based in Nationalism and unfairly represented in an all-US committee in this context. Like Sand Martins and Bank Swallows, recognition that there are two entrenched English language names is surely the best approach here?


Additional comments from Remsen: "With respect to Thomas's comments above, I would say that as long as the name is Moorhen, not Merehen, it remains an unfortunate misnomer in terms of modern English. Regardless of derivation of Moorhen, the over-riding consideration for me is that if any species on the planet is to be called Gallinule, it should be the type species for the genus Gallinula."