Proposal (629) to South American Classification Committee


Change English name of Golden Grosbeak



Background: The term “Golden Grosbeak” is currently used by birders and ornithologists to describe Pheucticus chrysopeplus aurantiacus (Salvin & Godman, 1891), a taxon of “Yellow Grosbeak” endemic to cloudforest clearings and edge in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. This information was not mentioned in “Proposal 625(Modify English name of Pheucticus chrysogaster), the subsequent passage of which is problematic.


I believe I first became aware of this name being used for P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus in Steve N.G. Howell’s A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico (1999). Specifically, you may see it on page 361.



I suggest that a change in English name (especially when not accompanied by a change in taxonomy) should follow a “do no harm” approach. Because a majority of the committee obviously feels a change is warranted, I would respectfully urge them to reconsider the passage of Proposal 625 and instead use a name that has never been used for any other taxon. Even when usage is not “official”, that does not negate the negative and confusing effects of appropriating an English name that’s already in use for another taxon. Birders have been using “Golden Grosbeak” to refer to P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus for at least 15 years, and I have heard it in conversation for at least the last 12. I remember other birders calling it that when I was at El Triunfo in January 2002, and I’ve heard it many times since then. (Please note that Howell was on a long sea voyage unavailable for quick comment on where this name originated.)


There are many possible English names for P. chrysogaster that would be unique and just as descriptive and appropriate. Why not use one of them? “Saffron Grosbeak”, for instance, has a nice ring to it. And, indeed, it is unique. There are zero Google hits for “Saffron Grosbeak”. Contrast this to 320 for “Golden Grosbeak”. Now, the overwhelming majority of those don’t refer to P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus, of course, but some do. Here are some of those.


I should disclose bias on my part on this topic. I have submitted a manuscript for review of a Mexican field guide I am authoring, and I have used “Golden Grosbeak” to refer to P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus. Whether usage is “official” (Does such a thing as an official English name for a subspecies exist any more?) is, I feel, irrelevant. The name “Golden Grosbeak” is demonstrably already in use by birders and ornithologists, and I contend that applying it to a different taxon with which it has no prior association is creating a problem larger than any that existed in the first place.


Recommendation: I recommend that the committee institute a further change of English name for P. chrysogaster to “Saffron Grosbeak” or some other English name that is not currently in use or was not formerly used to refer to another taxon. This will eliminate any future confusion with P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus and at the same time achieve the effect Dan Lane was looking for in his original proposal. Everybody wins in my view.


Michael Retter, 25 April 2014




Comments from Dan Lane: “I confess I didn't specifically check into proposed English names for P. chrysopeplus aurantiacus when drawing up my SACC proposal, but based on Michael's urging, have just done so. Forgive me if I don't use the Web as my basis for establishment of a name, as I think we can all agree that it is a fickle thing. I, therefore, looked in Howell's Field Guide to Birds of Mexico, L. Irby Davis' Birds of Mexico and Central America, Land's Birds of Guatemala, Ridgway's Birds of North and Middle America, and Hellmayr's Catalogue of Birds of the Americas to see if what Michael is saying is true. Based on these sources, I cannot find a single use of the name "Golden Grosbeak" for P. c. aurantiacus. Neither Davis nor Howell suggest an English name for the form (apparently Michael's reference is to Howell's bird finding guide to Mexico, where the 'name' is given--in quotes in an annotated checklist--to a distinctive form of Yellow Grosbeak, not a separate species), and in Ridgway and Hellmayr, the name "Orange-colored Grosbeak" is suggested. Furthermore, Clements' checklist gives "Yellow Grosbeak (Guatemalan)" as the name for this form. Other than Howell's bird finding guide to Mexico, there appears to be no other real publication that has used the name "Golden Grosbeak", and even in Howell's bird finding guide, that name is not used for a species-level taxon. Because "Orange-colored Grosbeak" is (if only marginally) more published, and vastly older (by a century), I cannot see how "Golden Grosbeak" is in any way established for P. c. aurantiacus. Michael's links above include "Golden Grosbeak" for a painting that is clearly a "Yellow Grosbeak" type, but is not identifiable to taxon, another is a photo taken of a bird at the Sonoran Desert Museum (so almost certainly not from Guatemala/Chiapas), and finally, two trip reports by Michael himself. As a result, the only independent uses of the name are the link to Howell's bird finding guide, a single photograph, and a tour trip list by Andean birding in which they call the bird "Yellow (Golden) Grosbeak". I have asked Jesse Fagan, who is authoring a field guide to northern Central America if he's heard the bird called by the name "Golden", and he says that he hasn't.


“One thing is clear: nowhere is P. c. aurantiacus considered a species, and thus it is not something that has had a stable English name; I suspect that most birders who have seen the bird in Chiapas and Guatemala have called it simply "Yellow Grosbeak." Orange-colored Grosbeak is the oldest English name available for this taxon, and it seems strange that Michael is using the same logic to try to attach "Golden Grosbeak" to P. c. aurantiacus that he implies shouldn't be used in applying that name to P. chrysogaster. Finally, Michael's suggestion of "Saffron Grosbeak" actually fits P. c. aurantiacus far better (due to its saffron-yellow color) than it does P. chrysogaster! I respect that Michael feels that his chosen name belongs best to the Middle American bird, but I don't see his claims of "common usage" and "causes for confusion" being born out by his examples.”


Comments from Remsen: “NO, for all the reasons Dan presents above.  If SACC had proposed Hellmayr’s “Orange-colored” and if that had been used in the tiny, mostly unofficial literature Michael outlines in the proposal, that would be different, but there is simply no historical track record for “Golden” for aurantiacus by any reasonable standard.”


Comments from Stiles: “NO, based on Dan’s comments.  Since nobody (yet?) has seriously proposed splitting aurantiacus, this proposal is basically a non-starter. Should it eventually be split, it would be up to NACC to decide what to call it. Presumably Orange-colored (or perhaps Saffron) Grosbeak.”


Comments from Zimmer: “NO for reasons summarized by Dan Lane, Gary and Van.  I’m not impressed with the internet sources used to support “Golden Grosbeak” as the unofficial name of a taxon currently treated as a subspecies.  I don’t see any real traction here.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “NO – The main metric that I am using here is that I have guided and birded a fair amount of time in Guatemala, and have yet to recall hearing the name Golden Grosbeak used there. I think that this may have been a shot from the hip name that Steve Howell used, and it did not gain uniform and widespread traction.”


Comments from Robbins: “NO, for reasons detailed by Dan Lane.”