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Alexander Skutch is one of the great naturalists of our time. Almost seventy years ago, he went to Central America to study plants, but the tropical birds there quickly captured most of his attention. For ten years, he wandered around tropical America living in research stations or rented cabins. In 1941, he settled down on a farm he bought in a Costa Rican rainforest where the great variety of plants and animals has kept him busy for almost sixty years. Now, at ninety-six, he can still tell visitors which birds are nesting where, the number of eggs or nestlings in each nest, the behavior of the parents and the fate of the young.
Skutch is a prolific writer; his books and his lifestyle have made him a guru among birdwatchers. One of the greatest accomplishments of a good writer is to write in such a way that in telling his own story, he tells the stories of others as well, thus giving expression and understanding to the lives of his readers. His essays in "A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm," University of California Press, 1980, express how I feel about my life in the Big Woods, which, in some ways, is similar to his.
As Skutch has traveled far on his farm, I have traveled far in the Big Woods of Fillmore County. I too spent much of my earlier life roaming about and when it was time to settle down, I looked diligently for the place that might fulfill my dreams. Since moving to the Big Woods, I have found little need to leave. The woods offers me so much that I hardly need more. At the right time of year I can step outside and see yellow-bellied sapsuckers tapping on their favorite elm; walk down my driveway and see waves of migrating warblers, thrushes and sparrows; sit
on the banks of the South Fork and watch flocks of robins and cedar waxwings.
Like Skutch, I have an emotional attachment to my woods and have learned much of what I know about it through careful observation of details. I feel proud when a chickadeelands on my hand or a deer comes within touching
distance. Sometimes I look so long at a certain bur oak that I seem to enter its burly bark. Like Skutch, I know the importance of details; I've spent hours describing the colors, veins and passage of time in a single leaf.
I have a particular affinity to Northern Cardinals, who, like me, form long-term pair bonds and rarely leave their own territories. They are easy to observe because they come to our feeders every day of the year. Females have pink beaks and male beaks are red. Male plumage is bright red. Female plumage shows subtle shades of red, green, gray and buff.
Cardinals countersing with their mates; one sings a certain phrase several times and the other matches it; when the leader changes to a new phrase, the other matches it again. At breeding time, they engage in mate feeding; the male picks up a bit of food, hops over to the female and the two touch beaks as she takes the food. They have as many as four broods. Juveniles have dark beaks and plumage similar to their mothers. Male cardinals are attentive caregivers; besides feeding their own young, they often feed the young of other species.
Sometimes I become so intent on watching and listening to these birds that I feel as though I understand them, that I am almost one of them. Skutch's writing make me believe he has also had this kind of experience.
In "The Minds of Birds," Texas A&M University Press, 1996, he writes:
It is remarkable how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances; soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests; harsh or grating sounds while threatening or attacking an enemy . . . Birds so frequently respond to events in tones such as we might use that we suspect their emotions are similar to our own.
I am grateful to Skutch for giving me words to express my own experience and perhaps, in turn, the opportunity to ignite a similar passion in someone else.
Illistration by Dana Gardner.