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ALEXANDER SKUTCH (1904-2004)


A decade after earning a PhD in botany from Johns Hopkins in 1928, Skutch switched “from foliage to feathers” (Stiles 2005) and moved to Costa Rica with a singular purpose: to describe the life histories of Central American birds, about whose habits almost nothing was known. He bought a farm in 1941 and lived there for the rest of his life.  Hewing to a simple, disciplined lifestyle, he spent his days in patient, persistent observation of the more than two hundred species of birds that inhabited or visited his farm, saying, “I am surrounded by mysteries.” Lloyd Kiff, who spent some time as an assistant to Skutch, described his typical day: “His daily routine was to go into the woods before dawn, make his observations until lunchtime, have a vegetarian lunch, take a brief siesta, and spend the afternoon writing his notes. A minor, but invariable, part of his routine was to walk around the field station just before lunch and pluck any still-fluttering butterflies out of spiderwebs.  He was a really unusual, remarkable man” (L. Kiff, pers. comm., 2010).

F. Gary Stiles, his collaborator in writing A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, summed up Skutch’s contribution to science: “Much (in some cases, virtually all) of what we know about the lives of some 300 species of Neotropical birds derives from his work . . . The legacy of Alexander Skutch to Neotropical ornithology is, quite simply, the largest body of natural-history information ever collected by a single observer” (Stiles 2005, 708).

Besides writing life histories at the species level, he published five monographs on families of birds, the last, devoted to flycatchers, published when he was ninety- three years old. Skutch also wrote significant books on various aspects of avian behavior. The best known was Helpers at Birds’ Nests: A Worldwide Survey of Cooperative Breeding and Related Behavior (1987), and he published a book-length answer to a question many people ask – when and how do birds sleep? – titled simply Birds Asleep (1979). Finally, he also wrote his own life history in a series of books devoted to describing his farm in Costa Rica and the life he shared there with his wife, adopted son, and the flora and fauna and people that surrounded him. Written for a general audience, these books describe a life lived with few luxuries but many pleasures.