The patronym “Natterer’s Puffbird” was also suggested for striolatus, a nod to the 19th-century Austrian naturalist Johann Natterer, who collected the first Striolated Puffbird specimen (as far as Western science is concerned) during the nearly two decades he spent in South America. But this didn’t muster the votes to clear committee either, and the SACC eventually fell back on geography, a third major current within bird naming. Since these species’ ranges don’t align well with existing political or ecological boundaries, the SACC had to keep it basic: Western Striolated-Puffbird for obamai, Eastern Striolated-Puffbird for striolatus.
“Scientists have seen it as kind of their duty to make the kind of names you’d introduce to your parents, but not the kind of names you’d party with,” laments Jaramillo, who voted for the Stuttering and Whistling options.
Perhaps because the lines between species are so blurry, the project of naming birds at times degenerates into internecine squabbling over more black-and-white matters of English usage and grammar. The hyphen in Striolated-Puffbird, for example, is highly controversial within avian taxonomy.
The SACC is officially pro-hyphen, arguing that the mark serves two functions. It resolves potential ambiguities in names like Eastern Striolated-Puffbird (i.e., this bird is a Striolated Puffbird of the east, not a puffbird with eastern striolae). And it signifies the close taxonomic relationship between species (i.e., the two Striolated-Puffbirds are more closely related to each other than they are to the twenty-some other puffbird species in South America). Then there’s the International Ornithological Congress, or IOC––an entirely separate group that maintains its own checklist, conducts its own review of bird taxonomy, and states on its website that “grammarians now view past enthusiasms for hyphens as excessive and unnecessary.”
The SACC and its North American sister, the NACC, are standing committees of the American Ornithological Society, which sticks to the New World. The IOC is just one of four major checklist systems with a global purview. From the outside, the distinctions between them are fairly trivial. But as one might imagine, among those whose careers are built upon the minutiae of this stuff, feelings can run high.
After, the IOC checklist founder Frank Gill published a case against hyphens, for example, Remsen posted an acerbic pro-hyphen rebuttal on the SACC website. The rebuttal is twice the length of this story.
The bodies also diverge in matters of orthography. Where the SACC uses “gray,” the IOC prefers “grey”; while the SACC permits the occasional tilde in Spanish and Portuguese place names, the IOC only allows umlauts in patronyms. Sometimes they even disagree on the underlying taxonomy. The SACC is a more conservative body, less willing to confer upon a group of birds a species-level designation.