RSS Feed

banner_line_1

LIFE HISTORIES


The life histories of their targets were seldom of concern to the men who pursued specimens for museums, except as such knowledge aided in locating the birds for collecting. After all, one did not make one’s name or one’s living by reporting on behavior; indeed, stopping to observe a bird’s habits might result in unwelcome knowledge as the bird demonstrated the keenness of its instincts by flying out of range. The idea was to shoot first, ask questions later; as the English ornithologist Henry Seebohm is reputed to have said, “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.” As late as the 1920s there were no detailed field studies of individual Neotropical species (Snow 1976), but at about that time attitudes began to change.  Leo Miller, who had been one of the most proficient collectors in the employ of the American Museum of Natural History, gave up his pursuit of animals. In the introduction to one of his fantasy novels, The Black Phantom (which tells its story through the eyes of personified forest animals), he told why: “The dried or mounted skins of animals from out-of-the-way places are familiar to everyone who has visited museums and other similar institutions.  But, no matter how cleverly arranged, they suggest comparatively little of the creatures’ real appearance in their native environment. The comedies, the tragedies, and the life stories of the untrammelled wild creatures are infinitely more fascinating than a survey of their lifeless and often faded forms, only too frequently collected by the hundreds with little other thought than that of classification or the possession of rare or undescribed species” (Miller 1922, [vii]).  That sounds noble, but there was another reason for the changing emphasis from collecting to observing: There were no longer enough undescribed species to make collecting immediately rewarding. In contrast, the life histories of Neotropical birds, virtually unknown despite two hundred years of collecting, offered a wide-open field for study. So the shotgun, though it remained (and remains) an integral tool in the study of birds (particularly as regards distribution), began to give way to binoculars, and quick shooting to patient observation.

The level of patience required to study avian life is of a different order from that possessed by most people.  The wonderful life histories of Central American birds done by Alexander  Skutch are well known, and his highly anecdotal  accounts of the birds on his farm contain sentences of such charm that one almost misses the fact that hundreds of hours of observation went into learning a few simple facts.  A more rigorous methodology has since evolved, which conveys information at a level of detail that would have been unimaginable to earlier workers. Ed Willis, a pioneer of behavioral studies of antbirds in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote a monograph on a single species, the spotted antbird, that fills 162 pages with data on every conceivable aspect of the bird’s life (Willis 1972).  The research took at least twenty-four months of field study spread over a period of eleven years and involved banding 498 individual birds. As one example of the level of detail, there is a table called, “Perch Angles for Spotted Antbirds” that measures the angles from 0º to 140º, in units of 20º, separated into times when the birds were foraging away from ants, foraging with ants, or preening, with the resulting percentages derived from 2,395 observed incidents of the behavior. All of the data are distilled into a three-page summary at the end that tells everything one needs to know about the species. Reading the summary alone, one would have no idea of the amount of work involved in producing it.