Incorrect Common Names Being Added to Bird Subspecies

I’ve noticed that recently, a lot of bird subspecies have been getting common names. My problem is, about half of these “common names” I have never heard outside of iNaturalist, nor does the name apply to the taxon. Here’s a few examples.

This morning, I added two observations of a Steller’s Jay from Tuesday. I was lucky enough to find an Interior Steller’s (Cyanocitta stelleri [diademata Group]) and a Coastal Steller’s (C. s. [stelleri Group]) side by side and showing the features that distinguish the two groups. I identified to annectens and frontalis due to range and the fact the species is non-migratory. When I submitted the two observations, they had no common names but when I came back on only a couple hours later, annectens is now the Black-fronted Steller’s Jay and frontalis the Blue-fronted Steller’s Jay. The reason why I have a problem with this is because the common name is more appropriate for the subspecies Group as a whole instead of just one. Secondly, if you are going to call annectens anything, you call it the White-fronted Steller’s Jay. Thirdly, common names are normally only applied to subspecies when there is several very distinct features between others, namely Northern Flicker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow.

This is not the only time either I’ve seen this happened. We now have on iNaturalist the Columbian Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus fortuitus) which also didn’t have a common name a couple months back. Whoever is adding these names, I want to know what their source is because I’ve known fortuitus to be a common nameless subspecies of the Interior Western Group nominate subspecies septentrionalis. And looking back of the Black-capped Chickadee taxon page, all the subspecies now have a name (septentrionalis now being called the Long-tailed Black-capped Chickadee) even though I’ve never heard any of these names being used. And isn’t the first guideline to making a common name is, “Try to add names that have been used elsewhere. Please don’t invent new names.”

Few more species with misleading or normally nameless subspecies; Ruffed Grouse, Great Horned Owl, Horned Lark and many other two/three subspecies species that named geographically.

Possible solutions: Feature request to make common name additions to birds restricted to curators. Educate users more and stress the reason for the first guideline of adding a common name. Open to possibilities.


If you have a question about the validity of a common name, please flag the taxon for curation. Curators can see who added each common name and bring that user into the conversation if needed, so as to see where they sourced the name from.


Ok, I didn’t know that. I’ve flagged common names in the past but there’s way too many to go one by one hence why I’m suggesting preventing common names from being added to avian species unless reviewed by a curator. I might want to change the title and subject to this thread.

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I’ve also been noticing this problem a lot lately. To add to the earlier points, most of these North American bird subspecies do not have common names (the AOS hasn’t recognized avian subspecies for 50 years, so they haven’t been included in the standardization of common names).

If the subspecies doesn’t have a common name, there’s no opportunity to replace a made up and inappropriate name with the non-existent correct one.


I agree that the great horned owl subspecies common names are mostly misleading/incorrect.

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Yes, I agree, example being subspecies subarcticus called the Northwestern GHOW. However, it lives from Yukon to Kansas, so not an appropriate name as it implies its range through it’s range which could lead to misidentifications.

Another thing that goes through my mind is, if you’re going to add a name, at least let it be a direct translation from the scientific name. But then I remember of course I don’t want to go around saying, “Look a Hare-killing Great Horned Owl” for lagophonus subspecies.

So @brennafarrell @fogartyf are we on board for a feature request to prevent using from creating common names in avian species?

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You are of course free to add any feature request you want, but on this I would encourage you to consider:

  • why should such a policy be bird specific? There are plenty of other groups with large numbers of loosely described, documented and accepted subspecies, butterflies are a prime example.
  • implementing such a policy would render it impossible for users to add translations of names into other languages, for example if someone wanted to come along and add the names of species (birds or otherwise) into Inuktitut they would not be able to do so

Perhaps there is a solution that can satisfy both of us. When you add a name, you have to…

  1. Type in the new name

  2. Fill in the lexicon.

  3. If it is a scientific name is it currently accepted.

Might I recommend a fourth to be added and that is to cite the source from which you got the name because it appears to me that the user(s) are ignoring the first guideline rule for adding a common name, “Try to add names that have been used elsewhere. Please don’t invent new names.”

And I also googled “Blue-fronted Steller’s Jay” to see if any source whatsoever calls it by that and it appears the user may be getting his information from But once again, it is the only source I can find using that name for the subspecies, so it sounds like to me they are inventing names and it’s now spreading to iNaturalist.


If someone is inventing common names, it wouldn’t be the first time. But I think trying to make the process of adding common names more difficult isn’t the best answer. I think the ultimate answer is to restrict adding these to curators in some cases and clarify what it is curators should and should not be doing (and clean up the curators list and assign roles, etc, but that’s probably a long way off and a bit off topic)


Your two statements are mutually inconsistent, ‘they appear to inventing names’ and ‘here is where they are likely getting them from’.

I’m not sure what the balance is, but the names do appear to meet the rule you cite of being used elsewhere. Avibase is a significant and recognized source.

To me a better solution is to add the scientific name as an English name and then set it as a higher priority, which should force it to show.

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@cmcheatle Sorry about my conflicting statements, I said ‘inventing names’ before I googled Avibase and didn’t think to correct before hitting reply.

As another solution perhaps we can add the common name of the subspecies group conjoined with the common name, and have the scientific name in brackets after the name as presented in the Downy Woodpecker on iNaturalist. At least then, the name is more accurate but not stretched as in the common names for each and every subspecies.

Looking over Avibase again and comparing with iNaturalist, even then not all of these common names match. Going back to the Steller’s Jay example, Avibase labels the Interior subspecies annectens as the Black-headed Steller’s Jay but on iNaturalist it’s the Black-fronted Steller’s Jay. However, I still find that an inappropriate name because all Steller’s Jays have a black head and I find the white facial markings a better field mark than a black head.

Same thing is happening with the Great Horned Owls too on iNaturalist. Subspecies subarcticus is called the Northern Great Horned Owl on iNat but the Western Great Horned Owl on Avibase. Both of which I find inappropriate because neither name really describes where they are found. Secondly, Avibase lists subspecies lagophonus as the Northwestern Great Horned Owl. Nameless on iNat. So to me, even though we have a ‘source’, there is still inconsistency between the names being added.

I have another idea for a solution: non-curator users can add common names, but they can’t become the default common name unless approved by a curator, even if there is no default common name. For those without a common name, the scientific name will still be the default name. And maybe the curator could start a discussion either here or on a flag to make sure that the common name isn’t made up and is a commonly used common name (if that makes sense).


I’m not sure the scope of the actual problem here justifies sweeping changes?
It appears that there is just one person being a little overzealous in adding common names that are not in use elsewhere. It would be good to try and figure out who that is and ask them to make sure names are in actual use, and are not too misleading.

If a name is actually being applied to the wrong taxon (as in your Steller’s Jay example where the name applies to a group of subspecies, not just one), I see no issue with just removing that common name.


This would still require curators to review and confirm every single translation that is added.

Yeah, I know… it was just an idea. Maybe to amend to my idea, when a user makes a common name, they can choose whether or not to ask for their name to be reviewed for default. But I guess, even if no change happens, curators are still going to have to review and fix a lot of stuff.

Have you flagged any of the taxa in question?

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I haven’t flagged any of the great horned owl subspecies, but I can right now if you want me to.

I’m pretty sure there is one user who’s doing this. Like most things on iNaturalist, it’d be best to have a civil conversation about the issue with those involved, understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and find a way forward from there. I’m not convinced new features are necessary.

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Tony, unless you want the person named here, which I don’t think is a great idea, I think you need to initiate the discussion with the user. While us curators can see who it is, regular users can not.


Right, which is why flagging the taxon is a good initial step.