For the Birds Radio Program: Alexander Skutch: Are we the animal that cares?

Original Air Date: April 4, 2001 Rerun Dates: Jan. 14, 2003

Why do we have favorite birds? And what are our obligations to protect the creatures with which we share this planet?

Duration: 4′56″


Now that I’ve been to Costa Rica and seen hundreds of new birds, including such glamour species as toucans, motmots and quetzals, people have been asking me what my favorite bird is. The answer is, there are too many.

Alexander Skutch, who has lived in Costa Rica for over 70 years, wrote a lovely essay about the caring behaviors birds exhibit toward their mates and young, and sometimes their neighbors, in his 1999 book, Trogons, Laughing Falcons, and Other Neotropical Birds. He noted:

The capacity to care, devotedly and consistently, is to me the most laudable aspect of animals. To call our own species “the animal that cares” is the noblest epithet that we can apply to humanity, greater praise than the designations of “the rational animal” or “the tool-using animal.” To be sure, caring is very sporadically developed among people, and many individuals hardly deserve this epithet, but the same might be said about reason, which is often misused, or about skill in making or handling tools. Creativity is closely allied to caring; to create anything well we must certainly care about it. Among animals, as among humans, caring and creativity are unequally distributed; in many, even of the warm­ blooded vertebrates, these attributes are almost totally lacking. Birds excel all other nonhuman vertebrates in caring and creating, and this is what attracts me to them.

Skutch continues:

These, then are the birds I admire, love, and do what I can to protect: They are caring-creative animals, attentive to their mates, builders of nests that are often beautiful or elaborate, usually keeping them clean, faithful parents, good neighbors, serviceable to the plants that nourish them, all in addition to delighting our eyes with their beauty and cheering us with their songs. Most of the birds that I know well have several of these points in their favor. No other class of animals contributes so much to the beauty and interest of our planet, to the stability of our terrestrial ecosystems, while making such small demands upon their productivity. Of the approximately nine thousand species of birds, only a small minority make themselves objectionable by becoming nest pirates or parasites, agricultural pests, or preying heavily on other birds more worthy of our love and protection.

Caring makes the more lovable birds akin to the more lovable humans; both care and create in due proportion to their intelligence, breadth of interests, strength and manipulative skill. It is distressing to see birds that care so devotedly for their nests and young harassed by animals that care for nothing, especially snakes, the chief pillagers of nests in tropical and temperate lands. Happily, many birds soon recover from their bereavement to try again and again to rear fledglings, by their admirable perseverance keeping ecosystems flourishing and cheering us by their continuing abundance.

Skutch continues:

In childhood I was strongly attracted to feathered creatures, as was Jean Henri Fabre to those with six or eight legs. As with him, this dominant love has persisted into life’s tenth decade. As I review my seventy years of bird study, nearly all in the Neotropics, I am comforted by remembering that I have never intentionally harmed, for science or otherwise, an adult bird or its young, although I was responsible for the deaths of two or three raptors preying upon birds I was studying and/or trying to protect. In the evening of life, I am distressed by the thought that humankind, as a whole, lacks the generosity to freely share an exceptionally favored planet with even the more compatible of the free creatures that surround us. Earth did not become habitable for the benefit of a single species.