Proposal (641) to South American Classification Committee


Change English names in certain Icteridae: (A) Bay-winged Cowbird, (B) Red-breasted Blackbird and White-browed Blackbird, and (C) Band-tailed Oropendola and Casqued Oropendola



         The comprehensive phylogeny of the Icteridae published by Powell et al. (2014) makes is timely to consider any English name changes in the family.  There are three such cases, each presented here as a subproposal to be voted on independently.


A. Bay-winged Cowbird vs. Baywing


For more than 20 years (Lanyon 1992, Johnson & Lanyon 1999, Powell et al. 2014), it has been clear that the Bay-winged Cowbird (our current name) is not a “cowbird” in the sense of belonging to the genus Molothrus, where placed for most of its taxonomic history.  Consequently, Jaramillo & Burke (1999) renamed it “Baywing”, and this was followed by Mazar Barnett & Pearman (2001); Fraga (2011) also used Baywing (but treated it as consisting of two species).


The advantage of maintaining Bay-winged Cowbird is stability.  The species has been known by this name since at least Hellmayr (1937).  However, with the use of Baywing in a major book on the family and the HBW volume, concerns for stability are reduced.


The advantage of Baywing is that it removes the misleading notion that this species is a Molothrus cowbird, a monophyletic group that consists of the only brood parasites in the family.  This would create an increasingly rare 1-to-1 correspondence between a genus name (Molothrus) and an English name (Cowbird), and in this case, would mean a “Cowbird = brood parasite”.


B. Red-breasted Blackbird and White-browed Blackbird vs. Red-breasted Meadowlark and White-browed Meadowlark


The English names and generic allocation of the “Leistes” group of South American meadowlarks has a complex history.  Our current classification places them all in Sturnella, and all are called “Meadowlark” except for the allotaxa S. militaris and S. superciliaris, which are called “Blackbird” (which goes as far back as at least Ridgway 1902), because they do indeed look and act more like the birds we called “Blackbird” than the species we call “Meadowlark”, at least the meadowlarks in North America.  However, the southern South American group, at least S. bellicosa, might be considered somewhat intermediate between “blackbird” and “meadowlark” (sensu North American Sturnella).  Although the two Sturnella currently called “Blackbird” have a long history with that name, Jaramillo & Burke (1999) listed “Red-breasted Meadowlark” and “Northern Marsh Meadowlark” as alternative names for S. militaris, and “White-browed Meadowlark” and “Southern Marsh Meadowlark” for S. superciliaris.


The advantage of maintaining these two species as “Blackbird” is stability.  They have been known as “Blackbird” in almost all regularly used references.  However, both “Red-breasted Meadowlark” and “White-browed Meadowlark” are in the literature (barely), so we would not be creating new names.


The advantage of changing both to Meadowlark is that it removes the misleading notion that they are closely related to the true blackbirds, all of which are in a distant branch of the Icteridae.  The change would create an increasingly rare 1-to-1 correspondence between a genus name (Sturnella, or including also Leistes if that genus were resurrected) and an English name (Meadowlark).  My biggest reservation is that S. loyca, S. defilippii, and S. bellicosa have all been known at one time of another as “Something” (“Greater”, “Lesser”, and “Peruvian”) Red-breasted Meadowlark, thus leading to potential confusion; on the other hand, a degree of confusion already exists because the only species currently with “Red-breasted” in its name is S. militaris.


C. Band-tailed Oropendola and Casqued Oropendola vs. Band-tailed Cacique and Casqued Cacique


With the passing of Proposal 611, we have already moved these two species from their monotypic genera (Ocyalus and Clypicterus) to Cacicus, based on Powell et al. (2014).  Thus, these two species, always known as “Oropendola”, are now in a genus known exclusively as Caciques, and the English name once restricted to what was thought to be a monophyletic group is now “paraphyletic.”


The advantage of maintaining them as Oropendola is that they have always been known by that name, whether in monotypic genera or merged in Psarocolius.  They both look more like true oropendolas, Psarocolius, than they do caciques; that similarity is why they’ve been considered just odd oropendolas.  On the other hand, a decent case could be made that Band-tailed looks as much like a cacique as it does an oropendola.  In fact, Fraga (2011) said of Band-tailed: “In general morphology, size, and behavior appears closer to Cacicus, with voice like the latter’s.  The same cannot be said for Casqued, however.  The base of the culmen is dramatically swollen, more so than even the oropendolas; its olive greenish plumage recalls that of several species of Psarocolius (e.g. a plate in Jaramillo & Burke contains only Casqued, Green, and Olive oropendolas), and the degree of sexual size dimorphism is probably more oropendola-like.  However, I found the following tidbits that may reflect its relationship to Cacicus:


• From Jaramillo & Burke (1999): “The nests are hanging baskets as is the rule in the oropendolas, although Koepcke (1972) illustrates the nest as being rather wide and short, reminiscent of that of Red-rumped Cacique, rather than that of a Psarocolius oropendola.”


• From Fraga (2011): “Song variable, one type a “klow klow shrr-weo”, with tonal quality of Cacicus haemorrhous.”


• From Dan Lane’s comments on a Xeno-Canto recording it leaned forward slightly when singing, and would throw out its wings, but did not fall forward as do Psarocolius.”


Of interest is that the Cacicus mentioned (haemorrhous) is the sister species to the Band-tailed/Casqued sister pair.


Recommendation:  I don’t really have one in any of the above cases – this is just to bring up the possibility and evaluate the pros and cons.  As you all know, I’m a staunch conservative when it comes to name changes, but I am willing to bend when slight adjustments allow an English “last name” to conform to phylogenetic relationships.



Van Remsen, July 2014





641A (Cowbird vs. Baywing)


Comments from Zimmer: “YES”.  I really like the idea of confining “cowbird” to the brood parasites of the genus Molothrus, thereby creating the 1-to-1 linkage between the genus and the English name, while highlighting the socio-ecological differences between the genera.  As Van notes, there is already some traction for using “Baywing” for these birds, not only in HBW, but also in Jaramillo & Burke’s (1999) treatise on New World Blackbirds.”


Comments from Robbins: “YES, I like having Molothrus (cowbird) equating solely with the brood parasite component. Baywing, short and informative …  if only they were all that easy.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “A – YES, of course, I am glad the name Baywing has gotten traction over the years. I know it is out of the norm, but a simple one word name is ideal in my mind. We live with Bushtit, Wrentit, Killdeer, so why not? The retention of cowbird for the brood parasites is the main reason I think this change is a good one. I have no problem calling Summer Tanagers a tanager even though we know it is not one, or American Robin knowing it is actually more closely related to the Blackbird just to come full circle here. So leaving Bay-winged Cowbird is entirely acceptable to me overall, I just think in this case with a group that is so radically different from all of their relatives (being the only brood parasitic passerines in the New World) they do deserve to have an English name that sets them apart clearly.




641B (Blackbird vs. Meadowlark)


Comments from Zimmer: “NO”.  I’m less enthusiastic about changing on these two than I was in the preceding sub-proposal.  We don’t have the whole parasite versus non-parasite ecological question that is presented by the Baywings versus the Cowbirds, and, S. militaris and S. superciliaris are morphologically and vocally atypical Sturnella.  I’m almost certainly guilty of logical inconsistency (relative to my votes on other proposals) by voting “NO”, but I just don’t think the return for the blow to nomenclatural stability is worth the tradeoff in this particular case.”


Comments from Robbins: “YES.  Regardless of what we do it will continue to cause confusion.  So, it really doesn’t matter; however, given that I voted YES to changing the English names of the cowbird and “oropendolas”, to be consistent, I will cast a YES for this proposal.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “B – YES. I can go either way on this one, either way it is confusing and imperfect. I also think that Red-breasted Meadowlark and White-browed Meadowlarks are about the least informative of names, as the rest of the South American meadowlarks are all red breasted and white browed. It is too bad that they are not restricted to marshes, as marsh-meadowlark has a nice ring to it. Having said all that, whenever I am on tour and I see these birds I tell people that they are actually meadowlarks, and it is interesting to realize how few folks had come to that conclusion on their own, but once you tell them, they see that indeed they are. I do think that some new travelers to the south assume that they are red and white browed versions of a Brewer’s Blackbird or something of that sort, and that seems so off that maybe putting the name meadowlark in there to clarify things is not a bad idea. So cutting to the chase, let’s change it to the more informative, but imperfect Meadowlark names.


Comments from Stotz: “NO  White-browed Meadowlark is fine.  Red-breasted Meadowlark for militaris is not fine.  All the other red-breasted Meadowlarks have had Red-breasted in their names, and what is now defilippii was at one time called militaris in either Pezites or Sturnella.  I think it would be really confusing to have a Red-breasted Meadowlark that is Sturnella militaris (ex-Leistes) rather than ex-Pezites.

            “So I think we need a new name for militaris if it is to be called a Meadowlark.  I think at one time militaris was called Military Blackbird, so could go with Military Meadowlark.  Not very creative.  Another option is something that refers to the fact that it is the darkest headed of all of these birds, with no white eyebrow, so something like Black-faced, Black-cheeked, Black-cowled or something.”



641C (Oropendola vs. Cacique)


Comments from Zimmer: Oh hell!  I’m firmly on the fence on this one, but somehow it feels as if we should bite the bullet and change these two birds to “Caciques” – so “YES”, and that vote is based as much on voodoo as science!”


Comments from Robbins: “YES. I think we should go ahead and change the English name of these two to caciques.”


Comments from Stiles: “YES to A, B and C.  The Baywing case is clearest, especially in that it highlights the parasitic nature of Molothrus.  Both B and C are messier, in that the alternatives are well established, but the genetic evidence is strong for changing the names to conform to the phylogeny.  I don´t know superciliaris, but militaris is certainly a “meadow” bird; and including Ocyalus and Clypicterus simply makes two atypical oropendolas into atypical caciques.  Cacicus is a pretty diverse genus in any case: C. cela differs from most in its band-tipped tail, rather short nest with a lateral entrance at the top, etc.; C. haemorrhous is rather different in proportions ...  as noted by Mark, confusion may be caused in either case, but I think that the pro of reflecting phylogeny is somewhat more compelling than the con of upsetting stability.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “C – YES, but grudgingly. I say this because I must admit that I still have a hard time buying that Casqued is really a cacique. Something else must be going on, some mimicry or something. I guess time will tell. But accepting that these creatures are really Cacicus, I think it makes sense to change their English names. Although stability is disrupted, the number of people seeing or actively writing about these seldom see and little known species is miniscule. Whatever disruption it causes will be forgotten pretty soon. I don’t think we will get angry letters over this one.”


Comments from Stotz: “YES.  Actually, the English names as Caciques (Band-tailed Cacique and  Casqued Cacique) are good ones.  I am comfortable with Band-tailed as a Cacique.  It always seemed pretty Cacique-like.  Casqued being a Cacique is a little harder to get my mind around, but that perhaps makes it more important to call it a Cacique.”