Alexander Skutch, My Favorite Ornithologist
By Jon Friedman
Quite a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that Alexander Skutch had become my favorite writer/naturalist where birds are concerned. There are many other writer/researcher/naturalists that I came to admire for various reasons. For example, E.O. Wilson is another expert whose research and writings have expanded my understanding of the natural world and whom I regard as one of the most important scientists this country has produced. And, while Wilson is universally regarded as the world’s foremost expert on ants, biodiversity, the classification of species and nature in general, I consider that his simple and short treatise, Biophilia, should be required reading for those who profess a love of nature. And while there have many been many other authors deserving of special attention, our readership of bird-lovers would be well-served by becoming aware of the life and work of Alexander Skutch.
In this article, I will give brief information regarding his life, his career, and the dozens of books he authored about birds, to illuminate the importance of his contributions to science and the broader understanding of nature itself. I am particularly impressed and personally touched by this man’s desire to learn, his humanity at play in the wild world, his ethics and the moral code to which he ascribed. So while I will limit his biographical sketch (this information is easily available), I will focus my attention primarily on selections of his writings that distinguish him from his peers of that time and the beliefs and qualities that I have come to admire most about him. Finally, by presenting a tiny sample of his writing, I will let Skutch speak for himself.
Skutch began an unassuming career as a botanist, but quickly became fascinated by the birds he observed in the field while doing research on banana diseases for the United Fruit Company in several Central American countries. This early work enabled him to become familiar, and ultimately expert with, the insects, plants and birds of the tropics and highlands, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala. He was familiar with the eastern birds he grew up with on a farm in Maryland. At that early stage in his life, plants were the serious fascination that occupied his expansive mind. He earned a doctorate in Botany from Johns Hopkins University and soon thereafter found himself in Central America, where his interest in birds became his predominant interest. Aside from the research on banana diseases, he collected many samples of plants (some new to science), and this interest in botany dovetailed with his burgeoning interest in the natural history of birds.
In his long lifetime (he lived to be nearly 100 years old, from May 20, 1904 to May 12, 2004), he became the foremost authority on the birds of Costa Rica, was ultimately recognized as the most highly regarded ornithologist on several species of birds and of bird behavior, and authored 40 books and hundreds of scientific papers on various aspects of nature. He also wrote about spirituality, botany, philosophy, journals/diaries and poetry. In fact, reading the poetry of Tennyson and Shelly as a youth was his real introduction to the study of birds.
The more information I discovered about Skutch’s development as a researcher and writer, the more I appreciated everything about the man. His determination and driving desire to always learn more, to understand the connectedness that threads throughout everything in nature, to learn from personal observation, to understand behaviors that weren’t known or well understood, to write about all this in a personal and conversational manner: together, these attributes all contribute to the reasons I find Skutch so appealing, so accessible, so enjoyable and a real pleasure to learn from.
I think of him as a true “transcendentalist,” much as I think of Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and many of the early Hudson River Valley painters. Skutch’s writings have a real sense of poetry about them. His explanations and descriptions border the language of poetry. He, in fact, wrote quite a bit of poetry and even published a volume of his poems. Here is an example of this particular kind of his writing.
A pleasant land of sun and rain,
Of spreading palm and plumed bamboo,
Where broad bananas deck the plain,
And hills enclose the verdant view.
The sensitive plant we sow, then shield
And nurse so carefully at home
Is a weed in lawn and field,
And shrinks along the path we roam.
Here fruits we once thought strange and rare,
Which friends may read about, not eat,
Are set among our daily fare,
Now proffered as a bounteous treat.
Here autumn never drags decay,
For here is summer no mere loan,
Here never is a wintry day –
Yet springtime’s rapture is unknown.
A pleasant land, ah yes, and fair,
When first it fell beneath my eye,
I said I had not anywhere
Seen fairer land before me lie.
The light bamboo, the feathery palm –
The broad, wind-frayed banana leaf
No longer yield the soothing balm
To give my weary heart relief.
The wind creaks through the clumped bamboos
And plays a harsh and grating tune,
The oft repeated toll renews
And blows banana trees to ruin,
To ruin, I too am desolate;
There calls from North beyond the sea
(It calls, and I must wait and wait)
A land that’s fairer far to me.
Maryland, thy fields of corn and wheat,
Thy hills prosperous farms enfold,
Thy woods which yeld a cool retreat
Are fairer than the Tropics hold.
Untitled, September 5, 1926
Much of his writings, even the most scientific descriptions, have been noted to have a poetic feel. Even the titles of passages from his publication “Thoughts” share that quality, evidenced by the essays “The Truths of Nature” and “The Language of Flowers.” A short passage from that publication, sub-titled “Loyalty to one’s past” demonstrates this point:
“Often I feel very close to all my past selves, or more properly, to my one self in all its former stages, as though they are still with me, or that I am a composite of them, with all my past life compressed into the present. I am simultaneously the child who roamed over a Maryland farm gathering bright molted feathers, the student of Johns Hopkins, insatiable for knowledge, the young scientist delighted and humbled by his first contact with tropical nature’s profusion, the wandering watcher of birds and collector of plants, the homesteader trying to survive on a rough backwoods farm.”
From Thoughts, Vol.6, February 10, 1072
Here is a small sampling from “Thoughts” that resonates with me:
The Truths of Nature
Of late years my mind has been sorely perturbed by the uncertainty of our knowledge, the turmoil of conflicting scientific opinions, the overwhelming mass of data one must assimilate before making an approach to truth, the doubt of the value of all our learned disquisitions at the long end. But in seeking abstract knowledge I have too long closed my eyes to the truths of nature which are visible to our naked eye, audible to unaided ear. The world was made and peopled before I arrived upon the scene to grope blindly for the roots of the process. Whether acquired variations are heritable or not, whether light travels in a straight or a curved line, I have grasped facts greater than these, and at infinitely less expense that the verification of these demands. May the wonder and joy of the universe continue to exist after all its facts are catalogued and filed away in pigeon holes – these will never be so compressed as to fit in any pigeon hole.
What if theories fail, if experiments prove nothing; I have felt the freedom of the Frigate Bird soaring on quiescent wings in the rich sunlight above a broad and sandy strand; seen the nobility of the Ceiba tree as it spreads its mighty arms as in a benediction high above the green tree-tops of the rain forest, glimpsed the quick play of colors on the gorget of the hummingbird as he postures before his mate; gazed on the majesty of a noble volcanic cone silhouetted against the setting sun; grasped the warm hand of friendship. There was a period in the vanity of my youth when I valued these less than formal learning. I have paid deeply for my blindness. When earth’s last plant is catalogued and labeled with a binomial, may there still be fragrance in the rose!
From “Thoughts”, Untitled, Vol.1, June 9, 1931
A New Approach to Ornithology
Throughout his career as an ornithologist, particularly in the early and mid-periods, Skutch was under-recognized by many of his peers due to a methodology that was more personal and followed traditional methods less, than other researchers at the time. In the years before guidebooks were commonly available, scientists used guns to obtain birds, and the study of birds was mostly limited to specimens in the lab. Skutch believed that better and more pertinent information about avian behavior could be amassed by careful observation in the field. “He cut a new path, by describing the birds in their tropical habitat, while they were alive, instead of collecting them as specimens,” said Dr. Robert S. Ridgley, vice president for the endangered bird conservation at the American Bird Conservancy, based in Washington, D.C.
In a 2001 interview, Skutch advised scientists to treat the birds they watched “with great respect due to sensitive, feeling creatures and to publish their findings “without the needless excess of probability estimates that are making ornithological papers hardly readable.” In his writings, particularly in his essays and philosophical studies, he defended his personal theory of biocompatibility, or what he called “the harmonious association of diverse species.”
Helpers at the Nest
A chief example of this theory is what Skutch called “helpers at the nest.” He was nearly ridiculed over this, being accused of anthropomorphizing and not being scientific enough to satisfy the academic institutions of the time. This theory, in its simplest form, was arrived at by the extensive, direct observations he made of bird behavior. He realized there were instances where, uncommonly, other birds not related to the family group and, most controversially, other species of birds, would assist in the rearing of chicks with the parent birds’ seeming approval. In cases such as those, he observed the parent birds accepting any help to nurture and raise young birds. He thought that if parent birds would go to great lengths to protect their young, then he too would follow that same path as a human protector.
Adhering to those beliefs, he removed snakes and bird-preying raptors from his property to protect the many dozens of species that nested there. He paid particular interest to those species of predators that specialized in hunting birds as a primary food source in their diet, particularly one snake species. Oddly enough, he encouraged the nesting of Laughing Falcons (two such nests were usually occupied on his farm) as their primary food (almost exclusively) were those snakes whose diets were comprised entirely of birds. “I have never intentionally killed a wild or domestic bird,” he said in 2001 interview. He was responsible, he said, “for the shooting of a hawk or two that were preying upon birds that I was studying.”
From “Cherrie’s Tanager - a dying bird” from Journal, Volume 36, June 11, 1942:
Yesterday afternoon, on my way to the river for a bath, I came within an inch of stepping upon a female Cherrie’s Tanager. She was lying in the grass, and fluttered aside just in time to avoid being crushed. Since she could not fly, I picked her up for an examination. She was an adult in very bright plumage, with a bright orange breast. While no external lesion was evident, she could not fly, nor make coordinated movements of her wings, but only flutter in a helpless fashion. Her tail was always a little to one side. She seemed to suffer from partial paralysis. Yet she caught my thumb in her bill, and held so tightly that I was obliged to insert a twig between the mandibles to effect my release. I brought her to the house, and placed her in a box for safe keeping. This morning she was dead, as I knew she would be. I buried her beneath my little rose bush.
This passage provides a glimpse of the compassion he had for wild nature that was absent from most of his peers.
An Interesting Tidbit
In “Orioles and Their Kin” there is a passage in which he discovers an abandoned, years-old Hooded Oriole nest and his thoughts turn to how skillfully orioles build their sock-like, hanging or suspended architecture. Among songbirds, orioles tend to weave the strongest nests that can last years and offer remarkable protection. He wondered how much weight such nests could actually hold. A family of orioles only weighs several ounces and he reasoned that the nest was built to hold significantly more weight than that. Convinced the nest was no longer going to be used in future years, he took it back home and methodically kept adding lead fishing weights into it to determine its bursting strength. Thinking it would only hold a matter of ounces he was amazed to discover it held together until more than eleven and half pounds of weight burst through the bottom! His innate curiosity and need to investigate natural phenomena, I think, are aspects of his thinking that make him a remarkable researcher and distinguish him from the other ornithologists of his time.
Skutch brings to life the images he writes of and describes with great accuracy and understanding. Reading his texts is the next best thing to actually seeing the birds and observing their behavior. In a way, it may be better, as his knowledge enables him to make illuminating comparisons and comments. His writings, in my opinion, are gems among the throngs of ornithological writing. They are gems that stand out for a variety of reasons: his easy, personal and conversational style; his accurate observations and detailed descriptions; and the poetic grace, clarity and fluidity of his choices of words and phrases. His writings incorporate not only ornithology and biology, but philosophy (tinted with an aspect of spiritualism) that brings his version of nature and the natural world into the realm of science, evolution and the advancement of conscious life.
Among the many books he authored, and some of the ones I have especially enjoyed the most, are the following (with a special thanks to Vivian MacKinnon, who put several of these in my hands): The Minds of Birds; A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm; Birds of Tropical America; Orioles and Their Kin; The Life of the Hummingbird; Trogons, Laughing Falcons and Other Neotropical Birds; Antbirds and Ovenbirds; Birds Asleep; Origins of Nature’s Beauty; and Parent Birds and Their Young.
Additional information on Alexander Skutch can be found at www.alexanderskutch.com