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One Antpitta too far

March 11, 2011

The ongoing controversy between the American Bird Conservancy and a group of influential Colombian ornithologists has gripped – well, maybe not gripped – piqued maybe, the interest of birders and ornithologists this last week.  It’s a classic tale of ego and overreach, of daintily and not so daintily straddling the divide between multinational conservation non-profits and scientists with boots on the ground.  Toss in a measure of the still smoldering memories of old empires and you’ve got a situation where the parties involved are legitimately walking on eggshells, to use a tired and sort of intentional bird punny phrase.

Photo by: ©Fundacion ProAves

Did I mention that all of this international intrigue surrounds a not particularly flashy species of bird in a notoriously elusive family?  A grayish-brownish Antpitta, perhaps the ultimate conflux of desire and frustration in the neotropic bird families.  This particular bird was, until recently, without a name.  It was discovered in 2008 during a routine banding session in a Colombian cloud forest and given the name Grallaria sp by Colombian authorities who immediately recognized it as something different.  In the time since that initial discovery the bird was not only banded again, but seen by many birders looking to add this as yet described species to their life lists.  And predictably, the paper seeking to formally describe the antpitta was published not more than two years later.  But instead of one, there were two.

The first was in conjunction with the American Bird Conservancy, the well-established and successful American bird conservation non-profit, through their affiliate in Colombia, Fundación ProAves.  The bird was assigned the name Grallaria fenwickorum, in honor of the ABC’s President George Fenwick, who had played a major role in helping ProAves secure the funding to preserve the part of Columbia where the bird was found.  Normally when a new species is discovered, a type specimen is collected, but the holotype for this bird consisted of measurements, photos, and a few feathers while releasing the actual bird, in agreement with stated ABC policies.  The common name would therefore be Fenwick’s Antpitta.

The second publication was released by the Colombian Ornithological Association and authored by a pair of Colombian researchers Diego Carantón and  Katherine Cartuche.  In it, they claimed that the real discovery of the bird was made by Carantón, who found a dead antpitta in a mist net while banding in the region.  Further complicating matters, Carantón was working for ProAves at the time and neglected to report his find to his employer, instead seeking to describe the species himself.  Eventually he attempted to publish in the Condor, calling the species Grallaria urraoensis, Urrau Antpitta, after the region in which it was found.  The article was rejected, but ProAves was furious, claiming that Carantón not only had failed to produce appropriate permits for collecting the birds, but he was infringing on their intellectual property.  They sought to prevent him from publishing himself, eventually scooping Carantón and thus setting the taxonomic precedent in Fenwick’s Antpitta.

A more detailed timeline of the situation is available here, but it’s clear that it’s unfortunate all around.  Carantón was obviously wrong to go behind his employer’s back, but ProAves failure to seek some sort of compromise with a young scientist making the discovery of his career (not to mention the apparent character assassination behind many of their comments), is a black mark on what has been an enormously successful conservation initiative in a crucial part of the world.  Whether either Fenwick’s Antpitta or Urrau Antpitta catches on remains to be seen.  The scientific name is likely not going anywhere, but the common name is ultimately at the mercy of the birders that use it.  I know which one I prefer.

I’ve made my opinion on honorific common names known in this space before.  In short, I think they’re worthless; the arbitrary concessions to egos long past the point of caring.  If a beginning birder seeks to identify Swainson’s Thrush or Cooper’s Hawk, what is it about those names that suggests how to go about making the distinction from Gray-cheeked Thrush or Sharp-shinned Hawks?  What are William Swainson and William Cooper but names lost to history, notable only as historical artifacts?  What may once have been hat-tips to gentleman naturalists – exclusively white and english speaking too, doncha know?-  of a bygone era are now antiquated, archaic, and a reminder of nothing so much as the subjugation of indigenous cultures and languages by the cultural steamroller of British Imperialism.  One only has to look at the lists upon lists of honorific names in Africa, Asia, and South America to see that the sun never set on British naturalists either…

The rise of field identification has made the preponderance of aspostrophic bird names annoying more than anything, but still the honorifics roll on.  In fact, of the 65 or so species discovered last decade, 35 of them have honorific names, including Fenwick’s Antipitta.  This is not only frustrating from a descriptive sense – “Fenwick’s Antpitta” tells me absolutely nothing about the bird itself – but could have negative ramifications from a public relations standpoint as well.

You may suggest, and not unreasonably so, that it doesn’t matter what the bird’s name is so long as it’s protected.  As such, naming a species of bird after a benefactor, as in this case  may well be the way to bring in the big bucks from British and American donors.  But while ProAves should be legitimately applauded for the fine work they’ve done, it’s not the Fenwicks of the world doing the work.  The Colombian scientists on the ground deserve every bit as much credit for their role, and it is absolutely crucial for them, not to mention Colombia in general, to be treated as full stakeholders.  By choosing the name of a wealthy American donor instead of the geographic name, ProAves is, in a real sense, removing that stake.

ProAves claims that the antpitta is intellectual property, that it belongs to them and, by extension, their American affiliate, ABC.  This may legally be true, and certainly the name Grallaria fenwickorum is here to stay. But the insistence on Fenwick’s Antpitta at the expense of a name that, while not only being more descriptive and useful, honors the region and Colombia, is nothing short of a slap in the face.

So I don’t like honorific names to be sure, but I really hate it when a tropical bird is named for another white english-speaking guy.  Because long after the the last Fenwick is gone, one hopes that the region around Urrao still hosts this nondescript little bird.

It’s Urrau Antpitta to me.  No matter what anyone says.

  1. March 11, 2011 8:29 pm

    I am not sure what to think of the dispute between Carantón and Fundación ProAves, but I agree in general about descriptive names being more useful than honorifics. That is, as long as the descriptive names are accurate or visible features. We all know of North American examples where that isn’t the case.

  2. March 12, 2011 4:23 pm

    I agree about the common name.
    I stopped briefly at the Hickory Hills Boat Launch on Falls Lake yesterday. I only had about 15 minutes at 4pm. There was very little activity, but I had a very pleasant stop to stretch my legs. Thank you for the suggestion.

  3. Becky permalink
    March 14, 2011 12:01 am

    Great post Nathan!

  4. Ana Castaño permalink
    March 17, 2011 11:19 am

    Some of you have had the chance to read an statement signed by the National Network of Birdwatchers in Colombia (RNOA), im inviting you to read it again and support it in this link:


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