Proposal (938) to South American Classification Committee



Change English name of Pygmy Swift to Pygmy Palm Swift


Background: Way back in 2011, a proposal to remove the hyphen from “Fork-tailed Palm-Swift” (Tachornis squamata) was rejected because most of the committee then favored changing the name of Pygmy Swift (T. furcata) to “Pygmy Palm-Swift”.  (Since then, however, our policy has been to automatically remove hyphens from non-monophyletic groups, so that hyphen has to be deleted, without a proposal, because of Old World swifts called “XXX Palm Swift”.)  Here are our current SACC footnotes:


23. Tachornis furcata was formerly (e.g., Phelps & Phelps 1958a, Peters 1940, Meyer de Schauensee 1970) placed in monotypic genus Micropanyptila, or (with T. squamata) in genus Reinarda, but Lack (1956) and Brooke (1970) merged Micropanyptila into Tachornis, and this has been followed in most subsequent classifications (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990, Chantler & Dressens 1995, Chantler 1999, Dickinson & Remsen 2013). Called "Pygmy Palm-Swift" in Hilty (2003) [and elsewhere?].


24. Tachornis squamata was formerly (e.g., Cory 1918, Pinto 1938, Phelps & Phelps 1958a, Meyer de Schauensee 1970) placed in genus Reinarda, sometimes including T. furcata, but Lack (1956) and Brooke (1970) merged Reinarda into Tachornis ,and this has been followed in most subsequent classifications (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990, Chantler & Dressens 1995, Chantler 1999, Dickinson & Remsen 2013). Called "Neotropical Palm-Swift" in Hilty (2003) [and elsewhere?].


25. SACC proposal did not pass to remove hyphen from “Palm-Swift”.  However, Old World swifts called “palm swifts” make removal of the hyphen mandatory.


Alan Grenon has brought all this to my attention.  We did not follow up with a proposal to change Pygmy Swift to “Pygmy Palm Swift”.  The advantages of doing this are that (1) all three Tachornis would then have “Palm Swift” in their names as a signal that they are congeners, and (2) “Pygmy Palm Swift” also conforms to usage in IOC lists.  Further, before AOU/AOS expanded its coverage to the Neotropics, “Pygmy Palm-Swift” was already in use in New World publications, including in the Auk, e.g. Bond (1956).


This one seems like a no-brainer to me.  The name wouldn’t really be changed per se but rather modified, and retention of “Pygmy” and “Swift” in the name mitigates the cost in terms of loss of stability.


Collins et al. (2002), after conducting some of the only fieldwork on the species had this to say about the English name”


Common Name


“The common names Pygmy Swift and Pygmy Palm-Swift have both been used for Micropanyptila furcata. Although Pygmy Swift has mostly been used in recent publications (Meyer de Schauensee 1970, Meyer de Schauensee and Phelps 1978, Hilty and Brown 1986, Chantler and Driessens 1995, Chantler 2000) previous authors have used Pygmy Palm-Swift (Bond 1956, Lack 1956, 1976). The latter seems most appropriate in light of its distinctive and close association with palms and its presumed affinities with the two other New World palm-swifts, Antillian Palm-Swift Tachornis phoenicobia and Fork-tailed Palm-Swift Reinarda squamata, with which the Pygmy Palm-Swift may in fact be congeneric.”


Thus, Charles Collins, arguably the world’s expert on the species, used “Pygmy Palm Swift” in spite of maintaining them in Micropanyptila as a matter of taste rather than because he thought furcata was not the closest relative of T./R. squamata.


References: See SACC Literature Cited, with the addition of


Collins, C. T., T. F. Ryan, and R. Kelsey.  2002.  A review of the distribution and status of Pygmy Palm-Swift Micropanyptila furcata in Venezuela.  Bird Conservation International 12:189–196.




Van Remsen, March 2022






Comments from Donsker (who has Bonaccorso vote): “YES. I strongly support Proposal 938 to change the English name of Tachornis furcata from Pygmy Swift to Pygmy Palm Swift.”


Comments from Pearman (who has Areta vote): “NO. For various reasons including SACC's own guidelines, which presently follow NACC (" The NACC has long interpreted this policy as a caution against the ever-present temptation to ‘improve’ well-established English names and this remains an important principle. In practice, this means that proposals to the NACC advocating a change to a long-established English name must present a strongly compelling, well-researched, and balanced rationale."). Since the OD in the genus Micropanyptila, the placement of furcata was only refuted by David Lack, who later rebuked his own decision. So placement in Tachornis is still tentative, with the very few researchers on the species' biology retaining usage of the genus Micropanyptila. Therefore, "Advantage 1 (above)" to use Pygmy Palm Swift as "a signal that all three Tachornis are congeners" may or may not be valid, while we also have Palm Swifts in Africa and Asia, and we also have Neotropical swifts in other genera e.g. Chaetura that sometimes use palms for roosting. It is a given therefore that furcata is just one of many swifts that use palms. 


“Now, looking at the currently available field guides that cover this rather range-restricted species, it is indeed only Hilty (2003) that uses the name Pygmy Palm Swift, whereas each and every other author of a guide uses Pygmy Swift. The more recent guide to Venezuela (Ascanio et al. 2017) uses Pygmy Swift, and all three of the actual post-2010 Colombian guides use the name Pygmy Swift, including Hilty (2021), who has made a U-turn on his 2003 name. Finally, Restall's 2006 guide to Northern South America also uses Pygmy Swift.


“It is also noteworthy that HBW, BirdLife International and Cornell's Birds of the World all use the name Pygmy Swift. 


“For the sake of stability, overwhelming current usage (contrary to what is implied in the proposal) and uncertain taxonomy, Pygmy Swift seems preferable.”


Response from Remsen: “I added some material to the original proposal in response to in response to Mark Pearman’s comments.  The only indication that I can find in the literature that the three New World palm swifts are not each other’s closest relative is the following statement in Collins et al. (2010; Cotinga 32:114-117):


As reviewed earlier, we retain Micropanyptila and Reinarda until there is a more detailed analysis of New World palm swift phylogenetic affinities other than just their common affinity for palms.”


“However, Collins et al. go on to contradict themselves by providing evidence for nest site similarity (traditionally an important character in swift taxonomy – see Lack (1956) and Brooke (1970)), although Collins et al noted that a more detailed analysis of nest structure would be desirable.


However, it [the nest] appeared to be very similar to what has been described for Neotropical Palm Swift and Antillean Palm Swift with the entrance to the nest chamber being from below, near the central rib midway along the palm frond.”


“So, even if we treated them as three monotypic genera, there is no evidence that they don’t form a monophyletic group, and thus the advantage of signaling that they form a group, even if not treated as congeners, remains an advantage.  Note also that in fact we (SACC), like all current classifications, treat them as congeners.  Thus, the “overwhelming current usage” in terms of classification is as congeners.  All three are true palm-nesting specialists.  They are similar enough phenotypically that they have been placed adjacent to each other in linear sequences in every swift classification since the description of furcata.  If there were serious doubts in terms of phylogenetic placement of furcata, or if subsequent discussion here generates reasonable doubt, then I would agree with Mark and join him in voting NO.  There is a possibility that a broadly defined Tachornis might be paraphyletic with respect to the other palm-nesting swift genus (Panyptila), but in terms of plumage and nest construction, they fall into two discrete groups, so such a finding would be a surprise.  If Mark or someone could provide what Lack (?1976, Island Biology; I no longer own a copy) wrote about reinstatement of Micropanyptila, that would be useful.


“Concerning destabilization, a change from Pygmy Swift to Pygmy Palm Swift barely counts as such because the original components of the name remain.  The crux of the proposal is that it makes little sense to have two of the three species currently classified as congeners called Something Palm Swift but not the third, especially when furcata has been called Pygmy Palm Swift in the literature since 1956, which actually predates the first usage of “Pygmy Swift” that I’m aware of (Meyer de Schauensee 1966) <needs fact check>.  The intent of that NACC statement quoted by Mark is mainly to thwart creation of novel names, not ones that have been in the literature for 60+ years, including in this case in an AOS publication.  Obviously, we have many genera with “mismatching” group names, but to me this seems like a good opportunity to fix one of these by reinstating an English name already in use.


“As for ‘overwhelming current usage’ and Mark’s statement ‘contrary to what is implied in the proposal’, it depends on how you define ‘overwhelming’.  As a consequence of Frank Gill’s aggressive lobbying for adoption of IOC names, “Pygmy Palm Swift” is the name used in Wikipedia, EOL (Encyclopedia of Life), xeno-canto, and other sources that follow IOC.  I consider this only a minor point, but keep in mind that there IOC, BirdLife International, and “Clements” are working on a unified classification.”


Comments from Schulenberg: “YES. Mark raises a good point, that we don't have confirmation of the relationships between phoenicobia (Antillean), furcata (Pygmy), and squamata (Fork-tailed). At least, I'm not aware of any genetic survey that includes these taxa, and indeed, in general, is there even a single genetic survey of the entire family? So sure, I'll concede that even though it now is customary to include furcata in Tachornis, this could be demonstrated someday to be 'wrong', or at least, less desirable than we currently think. All that said, furcata always has been considered to be closely related to Tachornis, even by those who maintained it in a separate genus. So despite the lack of well-resolved phylogeny, I'm not worried too greatly about the issue: I'm perfectly fine with endorsing Pygmy Palm Swift, as outlined in the proposal.”


Comments from Stiles: “YES. Having collected and dissected nests of T. squamata, I find the nest description of furcata to be virtually identical; hence, I have no objection to Pygmy Palm Swift for this species.”


Comments from Hilty (who has Claramunt vote): “YES. I have no strong opinion either way on this one regarding the Tachornis swifts (especially since I have used both names). I would prefer, I guess, the use of  . . . palm swift . . . (rather than just Pygmy Swift).


“Also, I concur with the comments of Gary Stiles on nest structure regarding Tachornis. I have seen a dozen or more nests of this "Pygmy" Palm Swift near the Maracaibo Basin—all in palms, especially Royal Palms, in small towns, e.g. village of Caja Seca, and all of them wedged (or maybe suspended in some fashion) in overlapping outer and downward-hanging portions of palm fronts; nests always looked a bit trashy with the inclusion of some feathers in the plant and plant down material, and all with downward-facing entrances like the other Tachornis. Overall, nests never look all that secure where they were placed, but rainfall is rather low in the Maracaibo Basin area, so I guess some of them survive. Anyway, the use of "palm" in the name seems appropriate, and I suppose the English names ought to consistent.


“I can certainly live with either name, but you can put me down for Pygmy Palm Swift. One more U-turn (on my part) won't make any difference.”


Comments from Lane: “YES. Honestly I was not aware that the species' English name didn't already include "Palm Swift." As this species seems closely tied to nesting in dead palm fronds much like Tachornis (if it isn't in fact best placed in that genus itself), this would be an entirely appropriate "surname", and so I agree to it.”


Comments from Don Roberson (voting for ): “YES. My first thought on reading this proposal was: “hey, didn’t I see a “pygmy swift” in southeast Asia? If so, that’s a bit confusing from a global perspective.” Research revealed that I had, indeed, seen Pygmy Swiftlet Collocalia troglodytes, a Philippine endemic. That swiftlet is cave-nester, and builds a compact self-supporting nest with saliva that looks like others in the “edible-nest” nest category (although, apparently, it is not known to be edible). It is a swiftlet, not a “swift,” but still . . .


“Since the scarce Neotropical species that is the subject of this proposal is apparently an obligate “palm swift” in nesting and behavior (e.g., comments of Hilty and Stiles), and the name Pygmy Palm Swift is already embedded in the literature, it seems quite appropriate to change the English name to Pygmy Palm Swift. As a small extra benefit, it also removes any possible confusion with Collocalia troglodytes on a global scale.


“[Incidentally, the Old World Cypsiurus swifts are hyphenated in Cornell’s Birds of World on-line, which arises in part out of the HBW on-line production, as are the New World Tachornis (three species in each genus, and all hyphenated as “Palm-Swift” in that project). All are, respectively, obligate palm swifts. Whatever the rules may be that are applied to this case, there remain problems that only hyphens have solved between confusing names of New World and Old World species. For example, we have Yellow Warbler — not yet needing a further modifier in its name structure — but in Africa there are birds in genera Iduna / Calamonastides — to wit, African Yellow-Warbler, Mountain Yellow-Warbler, and Papyrus Yellow-Warbler in family Acrocephalidae — that are distinguished in a global bird list from our short English name Yellow Warbler only by their English name hyphens. Fortunately, the current proposal is not so complex.]”


Comments from Zimmer: “YES, for all of the reasons stated in the Proposal, and reiterated by others in their comments.”