Bird-Eating Snake and Alexander Skutch

I was walking back to the office with a basket of water apples today thinking how lovely everything was here in paradise when I was dive-bombed by a bird. It turns out it wasn’t me that was the target, but the snake in the bromeliad above me which was swallowing, what I can only assume was the bird’s mate, whole. It was an indecently slow process and, throughout it, the bird kept up its shrill calls (perhaps translating as ‘don’t worry, I’m coming to get you’) as well as its audacious dive-bombing. It was joined by a second bird for coordinated, tactical attacks. The snake ducked and bobbed, it’s mouth grotesquely jammed open by the victim’s twitching feathery rump. If it was a chick, it was a large one. By the time I’d managed to tear myself away from this dramatic spectacle in order to grab my iPhone from the desk, the snake had ducked down further into the bromeliad to digest, but the birds were still attacking an hour later when I left for home. It looked like a flycatcher. I checked the name with a guide and it’s a bright-rumped attila, a bird in the tyrant flycatcher family. As all those name’s suggest, it’s a territorial bully – but impressive.

When I struggled to identify photos of small brown birds taken by a hotel guest, he said “I can see you’re not a bird person”. That’s probably true in that I’m hopeless at naming them or remembering which song belongs to what, but I am fascinated by them.

In the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to be invited along to meet the naturalist, philosopher and writer, Alexander Skutch, at his farm (Los Cusingos) outside San Isidro del General in southern Costa Rica. He was then 90-years old, leading an almost reclusive existence in the simple, wooden house where he’d been for 55-years, all the trees around him thick with the birds he loved so much. Of his many books and papers, The Birds of Costa Rica, written with Gary Stiles, is the best-known, an ornithological bible, the essential twitcher’s guide.

But he wasn’t as interested in lists and specifics and counting birds, as understanding them, and it’s the books born out of a life of quiet observation, that explore cooperation, intelligence and play, that are Skutch’s unique gems. He was working on The Minds of Birds at the time, a controversial book that set out to prove that “birds’ mental capacities have been grossly underestimated”. Pointing at the birds flying around his back porch, Skutch said they weren’t merely functioning – doing what they needed to survive – but playing, proactively enjoying themselves. I often think of that. Obviously he supports his theory slightly more forcibly in his book (They count! They have long memories! And forethought! They recognise people!). It’s a wonderful, provocative read.

Born in Baltimore, Skutch studied botany, and used it as his passport to tropical adventures, funding some meandering journeys by collecting plants for foreign museums. He writes about those travels into the lost worlds of  the 30s and 40s with a wonderfully gentle, philosophical style. Try The Imperative Call: A Naturalist’s Quest in Temperate and Tropical America, or  his collection of essays, (including ‘Through Peruvian Amazon by Gunboat’, and ‘Birding in a Time of Revolution’) in A Birdwatcher’s Adventures in Tropical America. And of course if in Costa Rica: A Naturalist in Costa Rica.

Skutch was married to Pamela,  daughter of Sir Charles Lankester, who arrived in Costa Rica from Britain after answering a classified ad in, I think, the Daily Telegraph asking for a coffee plantation manager, and went on to create an extraordinary orchid collection, now left for posterity and open to the public. As Pamela seldom left the farm where they lived together without electricity, a telephone link to the outside world, or, for 50 years, running water, she remained quintessentially British, a Celia Johnson serving tea in china cups in the tropics and asking for news about the Queen.

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