Proposal (535) to South American Classification Committee


Change the English name of Phalacrocorax magellanicus



Background: The English name used for Phalacrocorax magellanicus has been reasonably unstable.  Our current name is Magellan Cormorant; therefore, this is also used in the Clements/e-bird list.  Hellmayr and Conover (1948) called it Magellanic Cormorant.  Meyer de Schauensee (1970) and Blake (1977) called it Rock Cormorant. Orta (1992) and Dickinson (2003) called it Rock Shag, which is also the name used by IOC.  (The use of Rock Shag in Dickinson 2003 was a last minute change that Remsen was not aware of until publication.)  Using Google Scholar, the number of hits indicates the latter is by far the most frequently used, although that naturally follows from its use in internationally used HBW and Dickinson, followed by Rock Cormorant, Magellanic Cormorant, and Magellan Cormorant.  Thus, there are at least FOUR English names is regular use in the literature; here’s a sample from what I can find on my shelves:


Magellanic Cormorant

Hellmayr & Conover 1948

Rock Shag

Johnson 1965

Rock Cormorant

Meyer de Schauensee 1966

Rock Cormorant

Meyer de Schauensee 1970

Rock Cormorant

Humphrey et al. 1970

Rock Cormorant

Blake 1977

Rock Cormorant

Olrog 1984

Magellan Cormorant

Howard & Moore 1984

Rock Shag

Sibley & Monroe 1990

Rock Shag

Orta 1992 (HBW)

Rock Cormorant

De la Peña and Rumboll 1998

Rock Shag

Clements 2000

Rock Shag

Mazar Barnett & Pearman 2001

Magellan Cormorant

SACC starting 2002

Rock Shag

Dickinson 2003

Rock Cormorant (Magellan Cormorant)

Jaramillo 2003

Rock Cormorant

Marín 2004

Rock Cormorant

Kovacs 2005


The argument of the use of shag vs. cormorant is better saved for an entirely different proposal because it affects many species.  The shag/cormorant issue has made Phalacrocorax particularly prone to having multiple names in use by different bird lists.  At this point there are no other species called “Shag” in W. Hemisphere (although IOC uses “Shag” for Imperial, but not for Guanay, to which Imperial is more closely related than to magellanicus … go figure). So, the use of Shag for magellanicus is particularly inappropriate in terms of phylogeny.  “Shag”, as used by the IOC, is scattered among multiple clusters of Phalacrocorax in the Kennedy et al. (2009) phylogeny and is phylogenetically misleading.


Analysis: Although Magellanic Cormorant is apparently the earliest name, Rock Shag is currently the most frequently used name, but Rock Cormorant is the most prevalent in W. Hemisphere literature, especially from the Southern Cone.  However, because all four names are in use, no clear “stability” argument can be mustered in favor of any one, and we think that it is better to chose the “best” name, now, from the ones available.


The name Rock Cormorant/Shag has no particular value specific to this species. It does breed on cliffs, but usually sandy or earthen cliffs more than rocky ones.  If you had to call one of the South American Phalacrocorax “Rock Cormorant”, it would be the Red-legged Cormorant! So the descriptive value of the name is weak, and potentially misleading.  It conveys no useful information about the species with respect to other marine cormorants, no more so than would “Marine” or “Coastal”.


In contrast, Magellan/Magellanic Cormorant on the other hand does tell you that it is a species from the austral New World, which it is.  No other cormorant is as closely associated with the general “Straits of Magellan” region.  The southern region of Chile, a huge one, is also called "Magallanes", so in Chile the Magellanic region extends quite a bit farther north than the Strait itself.  Imperial Cormorant also occurs there but also much farther beyond, i.e. Antarctica, the Shetlands, South Georgia, Kerguelen, etc.  Finally, Magellan/Magellanic name matches the scientific name, which is nice and clean, although not necessary of course.


As for Magellan vs. Magellanic, we think that the adjectival form is more appropriate.  Although it shows up weakly in the tabulation above, it competes favorably in Google citations, including current technical papers.  It matches the species name, which is magellanicus, not “magellani”.  “Magellan” sounds more like a patronym (for the famous explorer) and thus sounds as if it needs an apostrophe.  Further, the other English names similarly derived, e.g. Magellanic Oystercatcher, use the adjectival form.


Recommendation:  We favor Magellanic Cormorant for this species because (1) it’s a more informative name than anything using “Rock”, and (2) the adjectival form is more appropriate, as in other similar English names.  As a bonus, it is the oldest name we can find in the literature and is a perfect match for the scientific name.  Overall, we think it’s one of those rare “good” names (and why authors subsequent to Hellmayr & Conover sought to “improve” it remains a mystery).


Literature Cited (see SACC Bibliography) except:

KOVACS, A. et al.  2005.  Illustrated Handbook of the Birds of Patagonia.  Museo Ornitológico Patagónico.


Alvaro Jaramillo and Van Remsen, July 2012




Comments from Stiles: “YES. Magellanic is a good, simple, appropriate name that also agrees with the scientific name (of more interest to ornithologists than birders, but a plus nonetheless…).  I've never understood the difference between "cormorant" and "shag" anyway.”


Comments from Steve Hilty: “Some background on the etymology of the words ‘Shag’ and ‘Cormorant’ is obviously available on Wikipedia and other internet sites. Both words seem to have a confused history but "shag" (crest, etc.) in particular has many local, transitory, and often ambiguous meanings (as well as some that are unsavory, at least at the present time).  Cormorant (a.k.a. sea raven or bald raven and so on) has an even longer history and appears to be more consistently associated with these birds (unlike "shag").  I am also prejudiced by having used ‘Cormorant’ all of my life, but "cormorant" just seems to have a little more dignity associated with it than ‘shag.’  If I could vote my overwhelming choice would be to retain (or use) cormorant for all members of this genus.

“’Magellanic’ seems a more appropriate choice because it conveys some helpful information (distribution). Although one or two other species also occur in this region, the distribution of P. magellanicus is the "best fit" for the region. And, it mirrors the scientific name, which is always helpful. The name "Rock" suggests an association with rocky areas, i.e. breeding on sea cliffs etc., and this is not inaccurate either (although certainly not unique within the genus).  The problem I have with "Rock" is that there are rocks the world over.  Just no punch there.  Of the two names, Magellanic, to me, is the stronger name, and the one that much better evokes the history (Magellan), the power, and the mystique of this fascinating region.”


Additional superfluous comment from Remsen: “Nail-in-coffin = As far as I can tell, there are no Rock Shags on Shag Rocks (near South Georgia).  If correct, this might be my most important contribution to ornithology.  And leads to perhaps my most poignant theoretical question ever = ‘If from an old building on these remote islands one were to weep upon seeing P. magellanicus, then could that be described as Rag Shock upon seeing Rock Shags on Shag Rocks from the Rog Shack’?”


Comments from Mark Pearman: “In previous SACC proposals dealing with vernacular names there has been an unwritten rule to reinstate, or continue the usage of long-standing names over more obscure ones, for reasons of stability, unless there was something fundamentally wrong or misleading with the name; leaving aside splits, names without a trajectory and unnamed species. This is of course bearing in mind that there are many hundreds of poorly named birds on the planet that we are happy to call by their traditional name. It comes as a surprise to me at least (perhaps I am alone on this?) that proposal #535 promotes a very rarely used name (Magellanic Cormorant) over an extremely well used and well known name (Rock Shag/ Cormorant), with the proposition that the former is somewhat better, while not stating that there is something inherently wrong with Rock Shag/Cormorant. I believe that we haven’t seen this kind of proposal before at SACC, and that it could have negative implications.


“As an aside, my quick take on the Cormorant vs. Shag issue is that they are both in such common usage on all the continents, that there is no confusion anyway if you use one or the other and they should be interchangeable just like Jaeger and Skua. Even if someone tries to justify or recalculate the matter from whichever data or angle, sooner or later we’ll call the same bird a cormorant or a shag.


“Now back to the crux of the matter, the Rock Shag/Cormorant’s breeding range is restricted to the coasts of Argentina, Chile, and the Falklands, where it is particularly abundant. What is most important is that in all the field guides ever published for Argentina, the Falklands, and Chile, the bird is known as the Rock Shag/Cormorant, as well as in numerous other regional guides, photographic guides, and the Falklands atlas. This is very significant because reading between the lines, proposal 535 does not state just how much mileage can be found in the name Rock Shag. They mention the Google Scholar hit without stating the difference. It is actually 24 times greater for Rock Shag/Cormorant over Magellanic Cormorant (20,700 vs. 853) and more than twice that contra Magellanic Shag (just 419 hits), meaning that Magellanic Cormorant is a very obscure name indeed. Here also, I think it worth mentioning the two classic works on seabirds in our era, Murphy’s 1936 (NB the year), Oceanic Birds of South America and Harrison’s 1983 Seabirds, in which both authors use the name Rock Shag.


“So why should Rock Shag/Cormorant be changed? I found the arguments in #535 for using Magellanic Cormorant to be uncompelling, starting with conflicting comments about the nest placement. Rock Shags do often nest on rock cliffs, and incidentally they also happen to nest at the edge of all (emphasis on all) Red-legged Cormorant colonies in Argentina, on the same “rock” cliff ledges (see Frere et al. 2005, Hornero 20(1). To suggest that “No other cormorant is as closely associated with the general “Straits of Magellan” region.” is a weak and ambiguous argument when one considers that the Imperial Shag P. atriceps always outnumbers the Rock Shag throughout this region. Finally, Jaramillo and Remsen state, “Overall, we think it’s one of those rare “good” names (and why authors subsequent to Hellmayr & Conover sought to “improve” it remains a mystery).”  On the contrary, it was Hellmayr and Conover who revived the name Magellanic Cormorant from a historical source (Latham). There is no mystery at all, since Rock Shag was already in use at that time by, amongst others, Robert Cushman Murphy (see above) and by all the subsequent authors who chose not to follow Hellmayr and Conover but to continue using Rock Shag which was the common name for the species then, as it is now. In sum, I can’t see anything in this proposal that necessitates a vernacular name change.


“The name Rock Shag/Cormorant is memorable and more ingrained than Imperial Shag/Cormorant for example, which I am sure everyone would agree, is not a better name in comparison (not that I am complaining). And so, we ask ourselves, is it worth losing “Rock Shag/ Cormorant” for the sake of using a name that many would have to look up on the internet, as it is not available in bird books, just to realise what it is, or to start using it because a few people like that name better. Moreover, I suspect that if the proposal passes, it could be the start of a slippery slope with regards to the stability of other names in the SACC voting system. Fundamentally, I do not understand the need to change this name, and do not support the arguments for doing so. Ultimately, I suspect that more damage than good can be gained with this proposal and urge the committee to adopt the usage of the well known and currently used Rock Shag/Cormorant.”


Additional comments from Remsen:  “Just to clarify … neither Alvaro or myself are on any campaign to “improve” English names, nor do we have any fears about a slippery slope.  Those who know me know that I consider change to English names counterproductive unless (1) taxonomy forces it, (2) the name is erroneous, or (3) we need to chose among competing names.  This case is the latter.  There are 4 name combinations out there in use, and the SACC name is currently “Magellan.”  Thus, contrary to Mark’s thesis above, we need to decide what to call this bird, because as of now, there are competing names.  Contrary to Mark’s statements, we have dealt with similar situations regularly, e.g., Amazona aestiva (498).


“Also, when we stated ‘No other cormorant is as closely associated with the general Straits of Magellan region’, I think it is clear from subsequent text that the context is in terms of biogeographic range restriction, not abundance within the region.


“At the nit-pick level, as stated in the proposal we used Google Scholar, not Google.  The latter probes every page on the web, so with Rock being used in HBW and Dickinson (2003) for example, naturally its use increases geometrically.  The Google Scholar hits, which refer only to publications, are currently 135 (Rock Shag), 29 (Rock Cormorant), 18 (Magellan Cormorant), and 21 (Magellanic Cormorant).  So, the stats aren’t quite as unfavorable, although still obviously strongly in favor of “Rock Shag”.  We put that sentence in there only to point out that all four names were in frequent use, not to determine a winner per se.  It should be clear from our Table that Rock is by far more prevalent.  In fact, given that Magellanic may not have been used in a formal list since 1948, that it shows up as much as it does in such a tabulation could be interpreted as a positive.”