Proposal (813) to South American Classification Committee


Adopt new English names for Elaenia sordida and E. obscura


Part A. Small-headed Elaenia for E. sordida


With the passing of proposal 806, Elaenia sordida requires an English vernacular name. Elaenias are notoriously difficult to identify and, as such, any useful clue to specific identity in the English name would be a major bonus.


The only name suggested so far, and one that has only been used on-line, is Brazilian Elaenia (del Hoyo et al. 2018). Part of the species range lies in south-east Brazil, although this name does not of course aid identification in a country with thirteen species in the genus Elaenia.


Here, in the Southern Cone of South America, sordida is rather widespread in eastern Paraguay (eight departments), north-east Argentina (two provinces) and northern Uruguay (two departments). We are not convinced that the name Brazilian Elaenia is an appropriate option; it is not endemic to Brazil and a large proportion of its range occurs in three other countries.


E. sordida is a fairly large "crestless" elaenia which overlaps with crested E. flavogaster and somewhat crested E. spectabilis which are both similar in size. Considerably smaller congeners such as E. mesoleuca, E. parvirostris and E. albiceps also overlap, and these species can elevate a slight crest when excited (mesoleuca and parvirostris) or a very prominent one (albiceps).


The head to body ratio in sordida is a striking feature in that it always appears very small-headed; 


see here:


and here:


The lack of a crest helps to impart this visual effect of small-headedness.



Part B. Highland Elaenia for Elaenia obscura


We propose to retain Highland Elaenia for Elaenia obscura. First, it is accurate, because it occurs in the highlands (unlike sordida). Second, there are not many features that would help distinguish it from E. sordida and other sympatric species, except for its dull yellowish wing bars instead of white. Third, we believe that in cases such as this one, the decision to coin new names for sister taxa needs to be reconsidered. Indeed, this loose policy lacks a solid basis, as there is nothing inherently different when coining names for sister than for non-sister species, except for cases in which the noun part of the names may suggest a non-existing relationship (still, common names abound in errors of this sort, think of Tyrannulet for example!). As a general rule, we suggest that, if any species will retain the original name, it should be the nominate one, and there are already abundant cases of this which passed SACC proposals, although there are others which did not.


Recommendations: We recommend a YES vote for Part A to endorse the name Small-headed Elaenia for Elaenia sordida. We recommend a YES vote to Part B to retain the English name of Highland Elaenia E. obscura.


Literature cited

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N. & Kirwan, G.M. (2018). Brazilian Elaenia (Elaenia sordida).  In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 7 October 2018).



 Mark Pearman, Paul Smith, and Nacho Areta, March 2019




Comments from Remsen:

“A. YES.  “Brazilian” is a lousy name, as noted here as well as in the original taxonomic proposal.  “Small-headed” has a definite appeal, as illustrated in the photos.

“B. NO.  I favor the guidelines of the AOS (and other organizations dealing with English names) in creating new English names for the new daughters in a taxonomic split unless there is a great disparity in range size between the daughters (e.g. Red-winged Blackbird retained for Agelaius phoeniceus despite the split of the tiny Cuban population).  Granted, not all cases are so clear-cut as the blackbird example: for example, see the current controversy over English names in splits in Thamnistes and Turdus nigriceps.  Retention of a parental name for a daughter species creates perpetual confusion concerning what that names refers to.  This guideline is very popular among amateurs and other users of English names because of that rationale.  Therefore, I think we should look for an appropriate new name for restricted E. obscura.  If we can’t find one, then I would support retaining Highland as a the option of last resort.  Whether the nominate form should retain the parental English name, as in formal taxonomy, is irrelevant in my opinion; most users of English names have no concerns about this one way or another --- it doesn’t even enter the list of factors to be considered in choosing an English name.  Finally, I’m not impressed with the name ‘Highland’ anyway, although obviously trying to find distinctive or appealing names for species in this genus is difficult.”


Comments from Stotz:

“A. YES. I agree that Brazilian is not a good name for sordida, given that it is far from restricted  to Brazil, and is one of many species of Elaenia in Brazil.

“B. YES. I am generally in agreement with Van that we should create new names for daughter species when there is a split.  However, this is an Elaenia, which limits the opportunity for a descriptive name. I don’t think Obscure Elaenia works. I am inclined to go ahead and go with Highland Elaenia, with the idea somebody might come up with a brilliant alternative in the next couple of months.”


Comments from Dan Lane: “For obscura, some possibilities could be Growling Elaenia, Brushslope Elaenia, Crestless Elaenia, Stout Elaenia.”


Comments from Zimmer: “YES” on adopting “Small-headed Elaenia” as the English name for Elaenia sordida.  The species is noticeably small-headed when seen in the field, and, as alluded to in the proposal, good descriptive modifiers for elaenias are difficult to come by.  “NO” on retaining “Highland Elaenia” for E. obscura, for all of the reasons spelled out by Van.  We already have Mountain Elaenia and Sierran Elaenia – why not allude to the montane distribution of obscura by calling it “Andean Elaenia” or “Cordilleran Elaenia”, given that it is basically an East Andean bird?”


Additional comments from Remsen: “B. How about “Dusky Elaenia” for obscura?  It’s a “dusky” elaenia compared to most congeners, and “dusky” is a fair translation of the scientific names.”


Comments from Stiles: “A. YES to Small-headed Elaenia; B. I like Dusky Elaenia better, but if a majority lacks one for Highland Elaenia, I could live with it.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “A. YES. This is a particularly good name, as it really does look small headed in the field.

“B. YES. I do not think this will cause a great deal of confusion. Retaining the name for this species is reasonable to me.”


Additional comments from Remsen: “B. Mark Pearman has pointed out to me that Dusky really is not appropriate for this species; it may be darker than many elaenias but it is really rather bright in terms of intensity of plumage.  Below are some specimen photos to ponder:


“This is obscura (left) vs. sordida (right).  Note how bright obscura is.




“Here is a set of elaenias that occur very broadly within range of E. obscura.  What strikes me is how thoroughly greenish E. obscura is with respect to this group, and so I wonder if, miracles of all miracles, we might be able to create a descriptive name.  “Greenish Elaenia” is preoccupied by Myiopagis viridicata, but what about “Greenish-olive” or “Olive-green”?  I’m staunchly opposed to retaining the parental name Highland because of the roughly equivalent ranges of the two daughters, and the perpetual confusion that would ensue because of what “Highland” would refer to.  English names are NOT the same as scientific names, and excellent rationale exists for the widely accepted guideline of creating daughter names for daughter taxa.  I would prefer any of Dan Lane’s suggestions over retaining Highland.”





Comment from Stiles: “With respect to obscura, it IS distinctly greener them most (all?) others in the photo - but where one most notices this is in the color of the chest (or breast) - so, how about "olive-chested" or "greenish-chested" Elaenia?”


Comment from Bret Whitney: “How about "Brushland Elaenia” or “Thicket Elaenia” for E. sordida?  It is not typical of cerrados, like cristata and chiriquensis, nor of woodland/forest edge and interior, like flavogaster, spectabilis, mesoleuca, and parvirostris (among congeners in eastern Brazil). It’s always in humid, low-stature, bushy/thickety growth, almost always in semiopen or broken landscapes, from patchy montane grasslands all the way down to restingas (white-sand scrub) at sea-level.  The words “brush” or “thicket” are probably the best descriptors of its habitat.  Yes, it looks small-headed, mostly because of the relatively large size, long tail, and proportionately short bill (not so much the head size — just look at the specimens). While I certainly prefer habitat-inspired names, I could live with “Small-headed Elaenia” or “Long-tailed Elaenia” because these are fairly distinctive features.  However, what I’d say is most distinctive about sordida’s appearance is the relative lack of contrast between the head and throat, with that same olivaceous tinge running posteriorly.  Relative to other members of the genus, it’s a remarkably uniform bird above and below.  If appearance were to win out over a habitat-inspired name, "Uniform Elaenia” might be best.  I like Dan’s suggestion of "Growling Elaenia" for E. obscura.  If we wanted vocal-inspired names for these sisters, then "Burping Elaenia" would be fitting for sordida.  That may sound silly, I guess, but “burp” is a good English word, a sound well understood by English-speakers (we even have a heavier word “belch”).  The burp sound itself varies considerably in people — just as do the several burp-like sounds made by E. sordida.  Having offered these ideas, I’ll be happy to use whatever names are decided upon.”


Additional comments from Remsen: B. YES, in complete reversal of my vote above.  Not sure why it took me so long to realize that this case, obscura and sordida are NOT phylogenetic daughters.  That was the reason why the split was mandated.  Thus, the guideline I supported in my first set of comments does not really apply here.  I’ve used this same argument several times previously to keep a traditional, good name for a “pseudo-daughter”.  The problem here is that sordida was treated as a subspecies of obscura s.l. incorrectly — rather than a true split, it’s a correction of mistaken relationships and should have no influence on the traditional name of obscura s.s.”


Comments from Schulenberg: “A. NO.  I am not at all enthused about "Small-headed" for sordida; could live with ‘Thicket’.  B. YES.”