Using modified name for subspecies

A general question to the public, one species I’ve been iNatting particularly recently has been the Swainson’s Thrush. It has six subspecies, let none of them have a common name besides phillipsi listed on the site.

The issue is, nobody is confirming my numerous Swainson’s Thrush sightings, and it might be because they’re all labelled at subspecies level, either ustulatus or swainsoni based song and range. I think that it is unfair that the Swainson’s has two species-like taxa groups with well used common names in literature; Russet-backed Thrush is applied to ustulatus, phillipsi, and oedicus, while Olive-backed Thrush has incanus, appalachiensis, and swainsoni. And I think we’d have a higher id turnout if we applied these common names to the groups because I think it might not click with someone that Catharus ustulatus swainsoni = Olive-backed Thrush, would is a heavily applied name.

However, we can’t apply “Olive-backed Thrush” to three subspecies, so my recommendation is to add the scientific name to the common to infer it is this subspecies within this group. Example:

Olive-backed Thrush [swainsoni]
Russet-backed Thrush [oedicus]

Is there an iNat policy prohibiting this? But otherwise, I’d think these names clear things up.

The common names on iNat should be those names that are actually in use outside of iNat. Not to be created for purposes of iNat identification. And I don’t think each subspecies has a common name–just the two subspecies groups. But iNat doesn’t offer a “subspecies group” taxon that could be used in this situation where subspecies are grouped into two groups.

I don’t think that folks who know birds are having a problem providing identifications due to lack of vernacular names in common usage for these subspecies. It looks like all your observations are being confirmed by at least one person except for the one’s with only sound recordings. I’ve noticed that people seem less inclined to identify sound observations–perhaps because it’s more trouble to listen than to see or fewer people are familiar with the sounds. I suspect the ID confirmation “problem” has a different cause than availability of common names for the two subspecies groups (or individual subspecies). I noticed that you’re observing within a contact zone with potential for hybridization. Can subspecies ID be confirmed without a doubt based on photo or song in this contact zone?

I’m not sure what you mean by “adding the scientific name to the common name”. Taxa are based on scientific names, to which common names can then be applied. Are you asking that the same common name be applied to each of the subspecies within the two subspecies groups? And then that the subspecies scientific names be included as part of those common names?

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There can also be problems with assigning common names to subspecies, see topic: House Sparrow now English Sparrow subspecies?

I would say yes.

Just the Name, Please
Please don’t add information to a name in addition to the name itself, e.g. “grumblefoots (this genus is monotypic, just ID to species!).” We use names in a lot of places for a lot of different reasons and adding extraneous information just makes them more confusing to users and more cumbersome to incorporate into designs (e.g. they might make it impossible to show a common name and a scientific name at the same time). If there is a real problem with misuse of a name, we would prefer to handle it in code and not in the name itself.

If a species has no common name in usage, please don’t make one up.


Yes, as mentioned in my post, if we add the name “Olive-backed Thrush” as the common name and add in parentheses the subspecies name, it infers that’s it’s this group, specifically this subspecies within the group. As mentioned:

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that, there’s definitely no range overlap in Oregon. The closest Russet-backed gets to Olive-backed Thrush is the Bend area but the Cascades and Blue Mountains are separated by about 25 miles of unsuitable habitat. I took a look at some photos (no recordings of songs), and there’s quite a few for the Cascades, only one for the Blues and it’s a pretty sharp declination imo, but there’s still plenty to learn.

I am one of those people who was disappointed that the AOS didn’t split the Swainson’s Thrush last year, and my opinion is stronger since my trip to the coast a few weeks back. I ran into a lot of Swainson’s Thrush, and I had troubles identifying them both by sight and sound, because Russet-backed Thrushes are a deep reddish color and almost lack the “spectacles” I find so crucial for separating Swainson’s from Hermit. By sound, I identified them Russet-backed because the song was definitely not any Catharus I was familiar with. The hybrid zone that ultimately made the AOS vote no on the split is about 40 mile zone along the Okanogan/Fraser River in British Columbia, which to my eyes is a very narrow hybrid zone and there was a moderate selection against hybrids, suggesting that Russet-backed and Olive-backed do have species-like tendencies. And honestly, if they had been split by the committee, I wouldn’t even bother identifying the subspecies, I’d just simply submit “Olive-backed Thrush”.

A rough (too rough) approximation from Fig. 1 in this paper

Fig. 3 in this paper shows that both mtDNA clades (mtDNA from both of the two subspecies groups) are found in western Oregon. So there may have been hybridization in the past even though there isn’t ongoing hybridization now–or that hybrids migrate beyond the contact zone where they were born. I don’t know if that correlates to difficulty in identification. But this is a fun example of our human desire to pigeon-hole things causing us grief for things that can’t be pigeon-holed.

I suspect using the common name like that might cause more problems than intended to solve. Multiple subspecies would have the same common name (but with an add-on indicating subspecies). People might not notice the add-on and apply the incorrect subspecies. It’s an unfortunate taxonomic situation, but I don’t think the perceived problem will be solved by repurposing the common name usage in this way.

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That’s actually not that all surprising to me at least. Many Rocky Mountain species do a circular migration because they can’t necessarily access their breeding grounds when they migrate north because it’s still covered in snow (this year for example, last time we had snow in the valley was June 5th, so guess how much was in the mountains). So, they migrate up the West Coast where there’s warmer weather and no snow. And it is a known occurrence that not all migrants reach the breeding grounds, usually due to exhaustion. But if there is none of their “species” in the region, they will naturally pair up with a conspecific.

On the other hand, the one thing the paper mentioned that I was previously unaware of was that fact that Olive-backed is the expected thrush in the Sierra Nevadas, and that throws a nasty curveball in the situation since the Sierra Nevadas merge with Coastal Range than resplit into the Cascades. I looked at a couple recordings in this “hazy” zone and immediately I got Olive-backed singing and calling.

eBird Checklist - 6 Jun 2021 - Whiskey Springs Campground - 16 species

Go further north to the Carter Lake region, and I see reports for both Russet and Olive-backed. But I can’t find an Olive-backed report north of that. So, in my opinion, that would be a perfect place to use playback to see how responsive they are to the opposing races.

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The user PNW ids is the main part of this problem… he just changed all the ids in western Washington into the subspecies no matter if it is or is not that species. This becomes a problem bc he identifies all day at the thousands. I have not had the nerve to say anything about it until now…


Flagging those can help to bring attention, but I understand you, there’s a user who agrees with ids by thousands with no knowledge, but I also didn’t have the nerve to flag those, it’s not against the rules to add wrong ids.

I kinda think It’s partially iNaturalist’s fault for making leaderboards,which most people shake off but a few get caught up on getting to number 1 (until a taxon swap I was that way w genus amazilla [misspelled genus of hummingbirds], but I had a idea of what I was doing)

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