Proposal (46) to South American Classification Committee


Change English name of Riparia riparia from "Bank Swallow" to "Sand Martin"


Effect on South American CL: This proposal would change the English name of a species on our list from a "New World" name to an "Old World" name for the sake of global conformity.


BackgroundRiparia riparia is universally known in Old World as "Sand Martin," and at least until recently in New World as "Bank Swallow." Going back at least as far as Coues (1872), this species has been known as "Bank Swallow", with the group name "martin" reserved for the genus Progne. I do not know why or how this difference was initiated, given that the British name for the species presumably had "always" been "Sand Martin." "Martin" has no such restriction in usage in Old World swallows; it is applied to species in several, unrelated genera.


Until recently, New World literature showed no signs of budging from the historical difference, and authors seemed content to relegate this difference to those that may be beyond the limits of "compromise", such as "Common Loon". vs. "Great Northern Diver." Sibley & Monroe (1990) used "Sand Martin," but that book had a global audience, as did Turner & Rose (1989), but in contrast to the latter authors, Sibley and Monroe were Americans, and Monroe was the chair of the AOU Checklist Committee for 15 years or so. True autochthonous use of "Sand Martin" seems to have begun with Ridgely & Gwynne (1989) and Ridgely & Tudor (1989), although the latter used "Sand-Martin." Ridgely & Greenfield (2001) also used "San Martin."


Ridgely & Tudor's (1989) argument was as follows:


"Known as Bank Swallow in virtually all American literature. However, it is elsewhere universally known as the "Sand Martin" or "Common Sand-Martin," with its 3 Old world congeners (cincta, paludicola, and congica) also known as various "sand-martins." Though there is nothing intrinsically "wrong" about the name "Bank Swallow," it seems time for Americans to synchronize with the rest of the world on this point."


[Ridgely & Tudor's (1989) exclusion of Canadians from the above was presumably a lapsus.]


Analysis: How important is it to standardize English names world-wide? Some see this as an important goal, whereas others see value in preserving stability within hemispheres or other regions. Personally, I see the "need" for standardization as over-rated, and I actually enjoy the inter-hemispheric differences as providing interesting cultural texture, just like "lorry" vs. "truck," etc. It is difficult for me to buy any argument that research or communication has truly been impeded by the need to know that Riparia riparia has different names in different hemispheres. Although I think evaluating which name is "better" misses the point, "Bank" is slightly more accurate than "Sand" and mirrors the genus and species names; it is also handy in teaching to maintain a distinction between the larger Progne martins and smaller swallows in W. Hemisphere.


A minor point is that two other Riparia are often known as "Brown-throated Sand Martin" and "Congo Sand Martin" (Turner & Rose 1989), creating some confusion unless the trite modifier "Common" and its ugly hyphen are added for R. riparia. Sibley & Monroe (1990) solved this by deleting "Sand" from the other two names.


Recommendation: I vote "NO" on this proposal, because I am not impressed by the "need" for globally standardized English names and prefer to retain the English name used in perhaps thousands of Western Hemisphere publications over the last 125+ years.


Literature Cited:

COUES, E. 1872. Key to North American Birds. Page, Boston.

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

RIDGELY , R. S., AND J A. GWYNNE. 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press.

RIDGELY, R. S., AND G. TUDOR. 1989. The birds of South America, vol. 1. Univ. Texas Press, Austin..

SIBLEY, C. G., AND B. L. MONROE, JR. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

TURNER, A, & C. ROSE. 1989. A Handbook to the Swallows and Martins of the World. Christopher Helm.


Van Remsen, July 2003


P.S. official British Ornithologists' Union name for Hirundo rustica is no longer "Swallow" but the very "American" "Barn Swallow."




Comments from Robbins: "I vote "no" as I prefer Bank Swallow. In my opinion, the AOU shouldn't have adopted the dreadful English name "Common Moorhen" is still a "Common Gallinule" to me!"


Comments from Stotz: "No. If the AOU north committee changed Bank Swallow to Sand Martin, then there might be a reason to consider this, but in the absence of that, it would be silly to have our migrant Bank Swallows morph into Sand martins when they cross the Colombian border. That being said, the genus Riparia is otherwise entirely Martins, so the logic of Common Moorhen applies. At the same time, we use Martin in the new world for an entirely different set of swallows, so the value of martin to set aside some subset of swallows is diminished."


Comments from Jaramillo: "NO!  There is no need for global standardization of English names, we already have standard Scientific Names. The erosion of regional culture in common names, whether English, Spanish or whatever is not necessary and is a pity in my opinion. What is next? Killdeer Plover, so that it is makes the plovers tidier, do we lose our jaegers or our loons? The folks that argue for global standardization don't seem to give importance to the fact that name changes confuse, and names may have some cultural value to the folks that use them. In addition, do they really cause confusion ever? When talking to a British birder/ornithologist is there any time when the terms jaeger, loon, Bank Swallow actually confuse and if they do isn't it clarified rather quickly? The more confusing situation would be to change a name that millions of English speaking New World birders (and scientists) are perfectly comfortable with and is unambiguous to them. I feel even stronger against the standardization of Spanish names, but that is a whole other story. It's the McDonald's and Starbucks mentality applied to ornithology, it would be valid if we didn't already have standard names (Scientific Names) to work with."


Comments from Nores: "En Sudamérica las "martins" son las golondrinas grandes (Progne y Phaeoprogne). Sería mejor que las otras especies de Riparia sean denominadas 'swallows'."


Comments from Schulenberg: "My vote: No I don't have a problem with global standardization as a general notion, but it leads pretty quickly to some monstrosities (e.g., "American Swallow-tailed Kite" of the sixth edition of the AOU checklist). Consequently, I am pretty quick to abandon the effort to standardize names worldwide when name changes become uncomfortable. Use of "martin" for a small swallow, while standard in the Old World, contradicts long-standing usage in the New World. More importantly, I don't think that SACC should be getting "out ahead" of the North American checklist committee on this issue. [And not that it matters, but I agree with those who think that adopting "Common Moorhen" for Gallinula chloropus was not a sensible move.]


Addendum from Remsen: To add a complication, Dickinson (2003) used "Collared Sand Martin" for R. riparia (to distinguish it from some other Old World Riparia known as "XXX Sand Martin".


Comments from Thomas Donegan: "I read through this proposal and comments with interest in January 2007, more than 3 years after them being written. It may be helpful to add some perspective from an "old world" person in case someone considers these issues further or wishes to use this page as a source.


"A novice North American birder in South America seeing Riparia riparia in a field guide labeled "Sand Martin" might not know the scientific name and could think he or she has seen a related but different species. The same applies to a European, Australasian, Asian or African seeing a "Bank Swallow". There is therefore a real confusion here that needs addressing.


“Various committee members assert that "Martin" is for Progne and other larger hirundines; whilst "Swallow" is for Riparia and other smaller Hirundines. However, the other species of the genus Riparia (and R. riparia in other regions) are termed a "Martin" in all relevant literature. In western Europe, long-tailed, colorful Hirundo (2 species) are "Swallows" whilst the plainer-colored and shorter-tailed Riparia and Delichon (3 species) are "Martins". The distinction between dull "Martins" and long-tailed colorful "Swallows" in the old world dates back to Shakespearean times and before (never mind the 1800s U.S. publication noted by Remsen above). The rest of the world's Hirundines have been assigned English names based on a rough proximity of their plumage and structural characters to Hirundo vs. Riparia and Delichon, in some cases not brilliantly. Progne are dull and brown and have no long tail streamers and are "Martins". I'm not quite sure how Stelgidopteryx became "Swallows" with their non-forked tail and generally brown plumage, though there is some resemblance in wing morphology to the old world "Rough-winged Swallows" Psalidoprocne. Holding "Martin" to be unavailable for Riparia due to use in Progne is a real case of the tail wagging the dog (cf. "Petrel"'s availability for "Storm-Petrel" in proposal XXX. Notably, "Swallow-tailed Kite" Elanoides forficatus and "Swallow-tailed Nightjar" Uropsalis segmentata are not so named because their tail is similar to a Riparia or Stelgidopteryx! They have long tail streamers, like Hirundo. How the usage of "Bank Swallow" arose in North America (like "Robin" for a Turdus) given past English language usage, Goodness knows.


"Asserting "Bank" to be better than "Sand" is further a weak justification, as the species nests in sand banks(!!) ("sand" being a class of soil as well as beach earth).


"Various of the arguments proffered above by committee members for the maintenance of the name "Swallow" for Riparia are deceptive or misleading. We are simply dealing here with entrenchment. I would not expect the predominantly North American committee members to change an English name of a common species that they have used for all their life. However, SACC members should not expect those that have used "Sand Martin" all their life to change this usage - and the SACC list is increasingly being adopted as standard for Neotropical publications.


"Riparia riparia genuinely has two names in widespread modern use. This is therefore not the same as the name-improving debate on particular species names addressed in countless other SACC proposals. I would encourage the SACC, authors of field guides, AOU and BOU to cite both "Bank Swallow" and "Sand Martin" as the English name for Riparia riparia. A similar approach could be adopted for Divers/Loons, Gallinules/Moorhens and Skuas/Jaegers where two highly entrenched names exist in countries in which English is a native language."


Response from Remsen:

“1.  Donegan’s plea for two names would require a policy change by SACC.


“2.  As noted in the proposal, Donegan’s point about birder confusion is vastly over-stated.  Birders who bird both hemispheres are typically aware of inter-hemispheric differences.


“3.  As noted in the proposal and not addressed by Donegan, If we adopted Sand Martin, it would have to have an odious modifier such as “Common” or “Collared” to avoid asymmetry with English names of other Riparia.


4. “The principle of long-tailed = Swallow, and short-tailed = Martin may work well in Old World, but it doesn’t here, where Progne = Martin and non-Progne= Swallow – another example of inter-hemispheric differences we just have to live with.  In personally prefer the taxonomic connotation to one that marks differences in tails.”