Proposal (443) to South American Classification Committee


Change the English name of Serpophaga griseicapilla


Background: Approximately 7% of the bird species in the world (650) have names of persons in the English name. Of these, about 476 have the name of the persons by whom the species were named; 92 have the name of the persons who described the species; and 82 have the name of persons who neither described the species nor named the species. Of the 92 species that have the name of the persons that described the species, two were described at the end of the 18th century, 74 in the 19th century, and 14 in the first half of the 20th century. Despite nearly 200 species being described in the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century, there are only two species that have names of persons describing the species: Vaurie’s Flycatcher (Ficedula crypta) Vaurie 1951 and Berlioz’s Sunbird (Anthreptes pujoli) Berlioz 1958. Consequently, there are not at present any living persons who described species whose names are in the English name of any bird species.


“Gray-capped Tyrannulet” is a good descriptive name for Serpophaga griseicapilla.


I vote YES to this proposal because I think that putting the name of the persons who described the species was a custom in a period in ornithological history that ended 50 years ago.



Manuel Nores, July 2010



Comments from Remsen:  “YES.  I agree with Manuel’s points.  To name this species after the person who described it and is also still living is perhaps unprecedented in modern times, and I wish we had considered this before we voted to name it after Straneck.  Because this proposal represents more than a matter of simple English names, but rather a policy decision, I am opening the vote to all, not just English-first members.  Manuel originally sent me a more general proposal on implementing just such a policy.


”As for procedure, let’s make this a vote on whether to change from “Straneck’s” to something besides that, and then have further discussion on the English name itself.  Also, as pointed out by Richard Klim, ‘Gray-capped’ won’t work – that’s the name of Phyllomyias griseocapilla.”


Comments from Nacho Areta: I don't see any valid point in Nores's proposal to change the common English name of Serpophaga griseicapilla, Straneck's Tyrannulet, by another name.


“First, it seems irrelevant to invoke lack of 'custom' to reject the use of the name of the person who described (and discovered) the bird, especially when the original description was published in Spanish and no English name was suggested in the original publication. Unlike scientific nomenclature, common names have been chosen freely in a very different spirit: there are no rules to derive common names, and I don't see any reason to have some. Moreover, even in scientific names there's freedom on whether someone wishes to dedicate a taxon to a person (Scytalopus robbinsi, Scytalopus stilesi, Doliornis remseni, Geositta rufipennis fragai, Phrygilus plebejus naroskyi), and it would strike everybody as odd to prohibit such actions by invoking that only a minority of species names are patronymics. Why would one then support the application of this criterion to common English names?


“Second, the chosen name 'Gray-capped Tyrannulet' is already used to dub Phyllomyias griseocapilla, thus providing evidence that this 'good descriptive name' is anything but diagnostic of the cryptic Serpophaga griseicapilla


“Third, I still think that Straneck deserve to have his name in this little flycatcher. Of course, this is not an argument, but a plea for the recognition to a person who contributed so much to the knowledge and taxonomy of the birds of Argentina in particular and the southern cone of South America in general."


Additional comments from Remsen: “With respect to Nacho’s comments, this is not a referendum on whether Straneck deserves to have the bird named after him.  Nor is the proposal to change to “Gray-capped.”  The proposal correctly points out that to name the bird after the living person who described it is evidently unprecedented, despite the lack of any official rules in English names.  There is clearly an unspoken reason why this has not been done before.  So, the proposal argues, why should SACC violate these unwritten “rules” in this case?


Comments from Stotz: “NO.  I guess I don’t really understand the logic of this proposal.  Why is it a bad idea to recognize somebody in the English name describer or otherwise, but a good thing in the scientific name?  While species with the describer’s name used in the English name may have been described century’s ago, the creation of the English name may be more recent.  For example, Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrant discussed in proposal 447.  That species was described in 1884, but I think Dickinson (or perhaps Remsen?) coined that English name in 2003.  In terms of using an English name to honor the living describer of a species, I haven’t searched hard for this, but Todd’s Antwren, Herpsilochmus stictocephalus, was described by Todd, and the name coined no later than 1966 (in de Schauensee red book).  Todd passed away in 1969.

“I can see no reason no to continue to use Straneck’s Tyrannulet for Serpophaga griseicapilla.  There is no obvious alternative in English with Gray-capped Tyrannulet out of the question.  I am sure we could invent one, but I don’t see the point.  This was an unusual case because an English name was not proposed at the time of the description.  Now, most times the English name is proposed at the time of the description, so this will not be a common issue to consider.”


Comments from Robbins: “NO.  Given that there is not an obvious appropriate English name for this species and I agree with Doug’s points; thus, I see no reason why Straneck’s Tyrannulet shouldn’t be used.”


Comments from Thomas Donegan: The above proposal notes some interesting trends but no policy reasons as to why some of those trends might exist.  Some possible policy reasons for the trends noted are set out below.  These mostly relate to the situation where a person names something after himself, which did not occur here.  However, the same result is proposed and similar concerns arise.

“1.  Conflicts of interest.  If a person proposes to name a species after himself, the objectivity of the taxonomist’s determination of the validity of the species being described may be thought to have been impaired.  There is a recent example of a herpetologist establishing scientific names named for family members (using his own surname) and this has been criticised.

“2.  People should establish vernacular names in descriptions.  If there were a practice for committees like SACC to adopt vernacular patronyms based on authors’ names, this might encourage people not to establish or suggest vernacular names in descriptions at all, in the hope of establishing a vernacular patronym for themselves.  This is linked to the conflicts of interest point above.

“3.  The reputation of live individuals may change due to unforeseen events.  Some countries restrict live (as opposed to dead) persons from being honored in certain permanent ways, such as on stamps, buildings, road names, coins or money bills.  Subsequent scandals might cause what seemed like an appropriate honour to be inappropriate in hindsight.  Scandals are more likely to surface in relation to live persons than dead persons.  There are various examples of accolades, prizes and the like being awarded to musicians or artists who have later been accused of serious crimes or sports persons later shown to have cheated.  Of course, taxonomists may name species after other living people, but this is generally for third parties, introducing some objectivity.

“4.  General aversion to patronyms.  Vernacular patronyms tell us little to nothing about a bird.  Even if a descriptive name does not reference a unique feature, e.g. “Greyish Tyrannulet”, “Argentinean Tyrannulet”, that name tells us a lot more about a bird then naming it after a person.

“These four points are each relatively minor.  However, the combination of alive plus self-naming patronym raises various theoretical policy issues, even if the approach is proposed with good intentions by third parties rather than the author himself.  I should note I don’t know this species or any of the persons involved, so have no agenda here.  These are just some observations that may be of assistance.”