Some Notes on Skutch


If you are a birder, and have birded in Costa Rica, you will recognize the name Alexander Skutch. Maybe you’ve even been lucky enough to visit his home, Los Cusingos. If you are a Costa Rican, he’s something of a national hero, even though he was an ex-pat American. Otherwise, the name of this pioneer ornithologist of the Neotropics is probably completely unknown to you. Which is a shame, because Alexander Skutch was someone special.

He’s best known today for his pioneering guide, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, authored by Skutch and Gary Stiles. It was the first bird guide published for the Neotropics, as important in its way as Roger Tory Peterson’s first guide to North American Birds. But Skutch wrote 39 other books as well, and published more than 200 papers on birds. Indeed, if you spend any time at the massive on-line database of bird information, Birds of the World, and study any of the Neotropic species, you’ll find some of the work was done by Alexander Skutch. In fact, in the case of yesterday’s Return of Bird of the Week: Black-throated Trogon, ALL of the research work was done by Alexander Skutch.

He wasn’t trained as an ornithologist. He first went to Costa Rica in the 1930s at the behest of United Fruit Company to investigate an outbreak of banana blight. It’s unclear how what success he had with banana blight, but he quickly came to love the avifauna of Costa Rica and, in 1941, permanently moved there, purchasing a 192 acre site in Valle del Generale that he named “Lost Cusingos.”

After long cogitation, I called my farm “Los Cusingos”, for (the birds) the Fiery-billed Aracaris, which are found only on the Pacific side of southern Costa Rica and across the border in Panama. I was not totally satisfied with this choice, but settled for it because certain other birds that I admired more lacked names that my neighbors knew and could pronounce. Now I am convinced it was a good choice; these agile colorful toucans have persisted here, while other, less wary birds have disappeared.

Alexander Skutch, A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm (1980)

Skutch was a naturalist. He disliked statistics, thought bird banding was mostly pointless and harmful to birds and generally avoided hard science. But his skills and observations are the foundation of much of what ornithology knows about the birds of Central America. He could find nests and observe birds with endless patience. He didn’t need to band birds to identify individuals of a species in the field; his skills were good enough the he could identify them by individual plumage differences. He was still doing field work and writing papers until his death in 2004, just eight days short of his 100th birthday. Skutch and his wife, Pamela Lankester Skutch, are buried at an unmarked location on Los Cusingos.

Los Cusingos was bequeathed by Skutch to the Tropical Science Center and is now Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary or Refugio de Aves Los Cusingos. WC has been lucky enough to visit the place, and can report that Skutch’s house and office has been lovingly preserved. His books still sit on the shelves, his typewriter sits at his desk, and his hat and field shirt hang by the door. It’s not a bad birding destination, either. WC was lucky enough to see and photograph Fiery-billed Aracaris at the place that bears their name.

Fiery-billed Aracari, Costa Rica

(By the way, WC hasn’t altered the saturation of the photo; they really are that dramatically colored.)

Skutch is honored with the Pamela and Alexander F. Skutch Research Award, which supports minimally invasive research into the life histories, especially social relations and reproduction, of little known birds of the continental Neotropics, including Trinidad and Tobago, awarded by the Association of Field Ornithologists. And also memorialized with the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, which includes Los Cuingos.

A final note: despite describing more than 20 species for the first time, he never exercised the privilege of naming one of those species for himself.

2 thoughts on “Some Notes on Skutch

  1. Wow! Those colours. And that legacy. A true testament to the adage that sometimes under the right circumstances one individual can indeed make a difference for good.

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  2. Pingback: FYI April 18, 2022 – Instagatrix

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