Books by Alexander F. Skutch

Released: March 29, 1999

Skutch (A Naturalist Amid Tropical Splendor, 1987, etc.) has had the chance, the curiosity, and the resolve—for over 70 years—to observe the habits of little-known tropical birds, and the gleanings here add random, intelligent insights to our stock of avian wonder. Now 94 years old, Skutch has spent most of his life in the tropics observing animals, and for the most part birds. This collection of essays concentrates on bird behavior that runs counter to form: raptors that nurse-maid small birds of other species, birds that make their home in the nests of arboreal termites or treetop vespiaries, the hunting peculiarities of the swallow-tailed kite (it gathers insects with its feet). He covers courtship activities of long-tailed hermits and adorable coquettes, the nesting ways of snowy-breast, beryl-crown, and violet-headed hummingbirds, and birdsong (his wife once heard a grayish saltator sing "look now, you're a great big girl"). He knows his birds like other people know their cousins: Take the piratic flycatcher, which "announces its presence by a variety of thin, breezy whistles that suggest a careless, easygoing, vagabond nature." His piece on the resemblance of marmosets and tamarinds, two primates, to tropical birds—coloration, grooming, vocalizations, diurnality—is a stretch: it fails to coalesce into a meaningful, let alone provocative, picture. But on the whole, the observations are keen fruits of a lifetime spent behind binoculars, and the writing is dignified and unadorned. A typical leisured and place-setting lead runs: "As I walked along a woodland trail, a startled Great Tinamou rose from the ground ahead of me." Admittedly, there is material here that falls a few sparks short of explosive—the scant depth of the rufous piha's nest, for example—but Skutch always invests his findings with the high purpose of bell-clear scholarship, even when of the footnote variety. (27 line drawings) Read full book review >