An Interview with Dr. Alexander F. Skutch
By Richard Garrigues
"For a large and growing number of people, birds are the strongest bond with the living world of nature. They charm us with lovely plumage and melodious songs; our quest of them takes us to the fairest places; to find them and uncover some of their well-guarded secrets we exert ourselves greatly and live intensely. In the measure that we appreciate and understand them and are grateful for our coexistence with them, we help to bring to fruition the agelong travail that made them and us. This, I am convinced, is the highest significance of our relationship with birds."
- Alexander F. Skutch (closing phrases from "The Appreciative Mind", the epilogue to A Bird Watcher's Adventures in Tropical America)
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1904, Alexander F. Skutch's sensibility to nature was perhaps first aroused at the age of 3 when his family moved to a farm in the country. In November of 1928, after receiving a Doctorate in Botany, he sailed from New York to Panama and the tropics got in his blood.
His relentless zest for unlocking nature's secrets and his inimitable way with words have resulted in his being one of the most prolific naturalist writers of our time. To date, Dr. Skutch has published 30 books--mostly about birds, but also on philosophy--and untold contributions to journals and magazines.
On January 20, 1997, a group of 14 US tourists and myself had the great pleasure of visitingLos Cusingos, the farm of Dr. Alexander F. Skutch. In addition to viewing a wide variety of wonderful birds, we also had the good fortune to be able to sit on the wooden porch and talk with Dr. Skutch about his life and his work.
The following excerpts transcribed from that hour-long session cannot begin to hint at the magic of that afternoon, such as when in the middle of telling about the history of the farm a small group of Fiery-billed Araçaris--known locally as "cusingos", and hence the namesake of the farm--flew into view; nor at the privilege we felt at being able to hear Dr. Skutch reflect back on 70 years of experiences here in the Central American tropics. Nonetheless, despite the limitations of the medium, I hope the following interview will give you a further insight into one of the 20th century's greatest naturalists.
R.G.: Dr. Skutch, you have a degree in botany and you originally came to the neotropics to study bananas, how is it then that you became so interested in birds?
A.S.: Because that time I came to a small research station that the United Fruit Company had in the northwestern corner of Panama, and while I was sitting at my work table inside a very simple laboratory, a hummingbird built her nest in a shrub right in front of my window and I became interested in watching that.
That was in December. By the time March and April came along, birds were nesting all around in the garden of the house I occupied and I became so interested in those birds--they were so different from any birds I had ever seen in Maryland where I grew up. When I got back to the States I looked up what was known about those tropical American birds. Practically all had been identified and the ranges had been worked out, but scarcely anything was known about how they lived, about the nests they built, and their whole behavior was practically unknown. So I became increasingly interested in the birds and when I finished my commitments in botany, then I turned to the birds. First I used my savings, then I went to a banana plantation in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala and spent a season there watching the birds. The following year I made friends in northern Honduras at another research station run by the United Fruit Company. Then I spent a year on the Sierra de Tecpán in west central Guatemala. That whole year I lived between seven and ten thousand feet above sea level studying a very different set of birds. By that time it was at the height of the Depression and it was very hard to get any support for your work, of which I'm rather glad because I learned to work on my own and finance my own studies. So I began to collect plants to pay my way while I was studying birds (I never wanted to shoot birds and make bird specimens). So I've been doing that ever since, until the last year or so, this crook in my neck prevents my looking up into the trees and I can't study birds anymore and that's rather sad.
Shirley Shaw: In what year did you come here?
A.S.: I came to this valley in 1935. It was completely isolated from the rest of the country in the sense that there was no highway built between San Isidro del General and the Meseta Central, where most people lived and worked. So I came by air on a small airline that took passengers and cargo to small settlements cleared amid the forests.
I was most fortunate that I made friends with the "jefe político" [the chief administrator in the small village] and he gave me a rather dilapidated "rancho" [a rough wooden building with a thatched roof] and I lived there for a year and a half. In subsequent years, I lived in other parts of the valley, all the time collecting plants, except during the season when the birds were most active nesting then I stopped and studied the birds.
At that time, this ridge right here was, you might say, on the edge of colonization. From here inward you could ride horseback on rough trails for hours and only here and there find a little clearing in the forest. Now, that forest has all gone up in smoke, unfortunately.
So, I bought this place. It cost me 5,000 colones then. Not the colones of today, but the colones of 1941 when a farm laborer earned two colones in a morning and those two colones could really buy something.
So I came here and I secured what I then thought was 100 hectares of land. But subsequent surveys showed that I only had about 76 hectares of land. That's the way things work here. And so I had this house built. It cost me 600 colones, and it's been my headquarters ever since.
R.G.: In the 60 years that you've been living in Costa Rica, what are some of the most memorable natural history events that come to mind?
A.S.: Well, I've studied so many birds here it's hard to pick out one for special mention. One of the interesting birds that I studied was the Golden-naped Woodpecker. The Golden-naped Woodpecker lives in this southern Pacific rain forest section. It has very interesting habits. The male and female dig a hole high up in a rather massive tree with some dead wood and they raise their family. But unlike many other woodpeckers, while they're breeding the male and female sleep together in the nest with the eggs and/or young; which is quite different from their neighbors the Red-crowned Woodpecker which always sleeps singly and will not permit its fledglings who've just left the nest to join the father or the mother, each sleeping separately at their own holes. It's quite different with the Golden-naped Woodpecker. It leads the young fledglings back to sleep with the parents in the nest hole or some other convenient hole and so the family, which often consists of five, stays together throughout the non-breeding season until the approach of the following breeding season when the parents begin a new nest hole and the youngsters, then about a year old and with the experience they've gained from their long association with their parents, go off and fend for themselves.
R.G.: You've never netted and banded these birds to know which individuals you're seeing, right?
A.S.: Well, sometimes I could tell them by some slight disarrangement of the feathers or some slight difference. Of course, in many birds the male and the female are quite distinctive. But no, I've never collected, I've never banded, birds--I've collected a lot of plants.
Lou Laux: How many species have you written life histories for?
A.S.: Well, at different levels of thoroughness, but I think some 200 species.
R.G.: I don't suppose you have any favorite birds after all these years?
A.S.: I've written a little article about that. It was published in Bird Watcher's Digest. I have many favorite birds, but I don't like all birds equally. I like the birds that get along well with other birds--which excludes the hawks. To have raptors on a small reserve like this is disastrous, so we try to keep the hawks out.
Shirley Shaw: How do you do that?
A.S.: With a gun.
But I must say we haven't been too successful, though.
Except there's one hawk that we love, the Laughing Falcon. Because the Laughing Falcon subsists almost wholly upon snakes. For four years we had them nesting in these African Oil Palms, one there on that side of the house and one on this side. We could never reach the nests to look into them, they were so high. As far as I could tell they didn't raise any young, but we counted the snakes the parents brought to them. We counted some 60 because every time the male would come with a snake he would call his mate, call her out of the nest if she was inside, and she would perch near him in some exposed position high up in the tree and then they would sing a duet. He would call, "Wah-co, wah-co, wah-co," and she would answer, "Yeow, yeow." And that would go on for as much as ten minutes! Then she would take the snake and examine the head end of the snake to see if her mate had properly bitten off the head. And then she'd either eat it or take it back to the nest and share it with her nestling.
R.G.: What was it about Costa Rica back in 1935 that made you decide to come here?
A.S.: Well, I was kicked out of Guatemala. [laughter]
No, I scarcely knew Costa Rica at that time. I had friends in Guatemala and I'd spent over two years in Guatemala studying birds and collecting plants, and I had the idea I wanted to stay there. I put in an application for residence status in the government office in Guatemala City. They took my petition and I gave them some data and they said come back after a while and we'd see what the decision was.
So, I spent a couple of months on the farm of a friend in a coffee plantation. When I went back to the government office, I said, "What have you done about my application for residence?" Nobody seemed to know anything about it. I think they were waiting for a handout and I wasn't prepared to give them one. So I came to Costa Rica--the best thing I ever did in my life!
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