Proposal (791) to South American Classification Committee


Establish English names for species in the Zimmerius vilissimus complex


SACC passed Proposal 741 (Split Zimmerius vilissimus into two or three species), leading to the recognition of three species:


Zimmerius vilissimus, including nominate vilissimus (extralimital) and parvus


Zimmerius improbus, including nominate improbus and tamae


Zimmerius petersi, which is monotypic


This proposal has not been implemented, however, because SACC has not yet adopted English names for these taxa.


Options for names for these taxa are a mixed bag. Mistletoe Tyrannulet was used for vilissimus (sensu lato) by Stiles and Skutch (1989); perhaps this name was in earlier use, but if so, I have not yet stumbled across it. The taxon in Costa Rica is parvus, and Mistletoe Tyrannulet already has been adopted by other authorities that recognize parvus as a monotypic species (World Bird List, McMullan and Donegan 2014, del Hoyo and Collar 2016). This name would be appropriate for SACC as well, even if SACC maintains parvus as a subspecies of vilissimus (sensu stricto). (Recognizing vilissimus and parvus as two monotypic species is a reasonable option, based on Traylor 1982 and Rheindt et al. 2013, but arguably is an issue for NACC.) By the way, the Ridgway (1907) and Hellmayr (1927) names are Paltry for nominate vilissimus and Lesser Paltry for parvus; needless to say, these do not present SACC with any useful options.


Venezuelan Tyrannulet already is in use for petersi (World Bird List, Dickinson and Christidis 2014, del Hoyo and Collar 2016). This name also is used by many authors, including Ridgely and Tudor (1994, 2009), Hilty (2003), Fitzpatrick (2004), and McMullan and Donegan (2014), for a slightly broader concept, Zimmerius improbus, including both tamae and petersi. The taxon petersi is not widespread in Venezuela, but it is endemic to that country. And the modifier Venezuelan has precedent in this case, given its use for species with similar distributions, such as Venezuelan Sylph Aglaiocercus berlepschi, Venezuelan Bristle-Tyrant Phylloscartes venezuelanus, and Venezuelan Flowerpiercer Diglossa venezuelensis. The Hellmayr (1927) name is Peters’s Tyrannulet. I haven't seen any other name in English. Phelps and Phelps (1950) referred to petersi as Bobito de Serranías Caraqueño, suggesting that Caracas Tyrannulet is a possibility, similar to Caracas Tapaculo Scytalopus caracae. Given that Venezuelan Tyrannulet already is in wide use for petersi, however, and that Caracas Tyrannulet or Peters’s Tyrannulet are not obviously better, Venezuelan Tyrannulet remains the best choice for this species.


Those two were the easier cases. For improbus, two names already are in use. Hellmayr (1927) used Mountain Tyrannulet for nominate improbus, and this name was resurrected by Dickinson and Christidis (2014) and del Hoyo and Collar (2016). This is not the most inspired or informative name, but there is plenty of precedent among Neotropical birds for a name of this form, e.g., Mountain Avocetbill Opisthoprora euryptera, Mountain Velvetbreast Lafresnaya lafresnayi, Mountain Trogon Trogon mexicanus (Middle America), Mountain Caracara Phalcoboenus megalopterus, Mountain Parakeet Psilopsiagon aurifrons, Mountain Elaenia Elaenia frantzii, Mountain Wren Troglodytes solstitialis, Mountain Thrush Turdus plebejus (Middle America), Mountain Cacique Cacicus chrysonotus, and Mountain Grackle Macroagelaius subalaris. On the other hand, World Bird List has adopted Specious Tyrannulet for improbus. This name was coined by Frank Rheindt in a draft proposal to SACC recommending splits in the Zimmerius vilissimus complex (similar to those that SACC eventually adopted, but going farther in splitting vilissimus and parvus). As presented in the (never submitted) draft proposal, the explanation for the name was "I seriously suggest the name 'Specious Tyrannulet' for three reasons: (1) it is at least partly synonymous with the meaning of its scientific species name (Latin improbus = dishonest), (2) it appropriately describes some of the taxonomic history of this bird, (3) it is a long-due English name in the same category as 'Cryptic Warbler' and perhaps 'Furtive Flycatcher' that describes the subjective emotional impression some of these birds have made on us researchers". Note that Jobling (HBW Online) translates improbus as "inferior" (in, not; probus, good, excellent). Rheindt's take on this (email to TSS, April 2018) is "I am fairly certain that 'inferior' should not be a good rendition of the meaning of improbus. This word is the antonym of 'probus', which means 'proper', 'honest', 'virtuous'. The meaning of improbus can be rendered in many ways, such as 'improper', 'immoderate', but I think 'disingenuous' or 'dishonest' hits it best in this case". So, the etymologies that Jobling and Rheindt came up with are in the same ballpark, but they differ on how best to express that thought in English. And I have no idea what Sclater and Salvin meant by coining this name. I appreciate a clever name, but my take on Specious is that it is just reaching too far; perhaps this name resonates more with others.


So, the options are


Zimmerius vilissimus

A) Mistletoe Tyrannulet

B) a great alternative name that has not yet been proposed


Zimmerius petersi

C) Venezuelan Tyrannulet

D) Peters’s Tyrannulet (thanks Duncan Ritchie for pointing out the correct formulation of the name)

E) Caracas Tyrannulet

F) a great alternative name that has not yet been proposed


Zimmerius improbus

G) Mountain Tyrannulet

H) Specious Tyrannulet

I) Spectacled Tyrannulet (as per Gary Stiles’ suggestion)


My recommendations are A, C, and I.


Literature Cited:


del Hoyo, J., and N.J. Collar. 2016. HBW and BirdLife International illustrated checklist of the birds of the world. Volume 2. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.


Dickinson, E.C., and L. Christidis (editors). 2014. The Howard and Moore complete checklist of the birds of the world. Fourth edition. Volume 2. Passerines. Aves Press, Eastbourne, United Kingdom.


Fitzpatrick, J.W. 2004. Family Tyrannidae (tyrant flycatchers). Pages 170-462 in J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and D.A. Christie (editors), Handbook of the birds of the world. Volume 9. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.


Hellmayr, C. E. 1927. Catalogue of the birds of the Americas and the adjacent islands. Part V. Field Museum of Natural History Zoological Series volume 13, part 5.


Hilty, S.L. 2003. Birds of Venezuela. Second edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.


McMullan, M., and T. Donegan. 2014. Field guide to the birds of Colombia. Second edition. Fundación ProAves, Bogotá.


Phelps, W.H., and W.H. Phelps, Jr. 1950. Lista de las aves de Venezuela con su distribución.  Parte 2. Passeriformes. Boletín de la Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales 12: 1-427.


Rheindt, F. E., A. M Cuervo, and R. T. Brumfield. 2013. Rampant polyphyly indicates cryptic diversity in a clade of Neotropical flycatchers (Aves: Tyrannidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 108: 889-900.


Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The birds of South America. Volume II. The suboscine passerines. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.


Ridgely, R. S., and G. Tudor. 2009. Field guide to the songbirds of South America. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.


Ridgway, R. 1907. The birds of North and Middle America. Part IV. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 50, part 4.


Sclater, P.L., and O. Salvin. 1870 [1871]. Descriptions of five new species of birds from the United States of Colombia. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London [1870]: 840-844.


Stiles, F. G., and A. F. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.


Traylor, M.A., Jr. 1982. Notes on tyrant flycatchers (Aves: Tyrannidae). Fieldiana new series number 13.


Tom Schulenberg, May 2018



Note on voting from Remsen: A YES vote on each indicates going with Tom’s recommendations (A, C, I), and a NO is for other options (indicate in Comments which one.




Comments from Stiles: “A: YES to Mistletoe Tyrannulet: its strong preference for mistletoe berries was evident to Skutch and me in Costa Rica, and to him in Guatemala. B: I’m OK with Venezuelan Tyrannulet. C: I agree that Mountain is a rather insipid adjective for improbus, and I must say that “Specious” seems pretty pedantic. However, improbus does have a striking facial pattern, with a white superciliary and white suborbital crescent; How about Spectacled Tyrannulet?”


Comments from Schulenberg: “"Spectacled Tyrannulet" (Gary's suggestion) is a fine name for Zimmerius improbus.”


Note from Remsen: “With Tom’s permission, I added Gary’s “Spectacled” as Option I and Tom’s preference.”


Comments from Steve Hilty: “The names outlined by Gary and Tom look good. Spectacled, in particular, seems appropriate for the improbus group because of the prominent face pattern. Mistletoe is also fine for the Central American parvus. In fact, it would work for almost any of these little Zimmerius because all of them eat a lot of mistletoe berries.