Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The naming of Gilbert's Honeyeater

“If you have not already honoured my poor name in your works, I know of no species that would delight me more than … this beautiful bird”, wrote John Gilbert to the famous ornithologist John Gould in 1844. Gould rebuffed him, “…as I have lately named a Pachycephala after you I cannot with propriety add your name to this new bird”. The beautiful new bird discussed was the now-extinct Paradise Parrot, one of Gilbert’s most famous discoveries, and the Pachycephala was of course Gilbert’s Whistler. However Gould had erred, not realising he had already described the whistler a few years earlier. Thus the honorific was relegated to the western subspecies P. inornata gilbertii, and it is only by chance that the English name of an Australian bird still honours his faithful collector John Gilbert.

More than 170 years later, the influential IOC World Bird List [1] did what Gould found so difficult, when on 23rd April 2015 they quietly renamed Melithreptus chloropsis as Gilbert’s Honeyeater. The same English name was adopted when the species was finally split on the eBird/Clements checklist in August 2015. The background to this name change reveals an interesting story of a Western Australian ornithological pioneers, and of modern-day debates about taxonomy and nomenclature.

Gilbert's Honeyeater Melithreptus chloropsis (subadult). Donnelley River, WA