Country’s famous bird expert began his career in botany

Finca Los Cusingos, the home of the famed naturalist Alexander Skutch for more than 60 years, attracts wildlife lovers and those wanting to see a sample of the simpler life of past times in Costa Rica.

Skutch died in 2004, just eight days short of his 100th birthday. He is buried near the main house along with his wife, Pamela Lankester of the family who founded what is now the Lankester botanical gardens belonging to the University of Costa Rica.

His doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1928 was in botany but while working for a banana company as a researcher he developed an interest in birds.

At that time tropical ornithology had not progressed much beyond collection of museum specimens, and Skutch’s contributions made by field observation of life histories were unprecedented. He ultimately published more than 30 books and dozens of scientific papers.

The book with the biggest impact at present was co-authored with Gary Stiles, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.” While the book’s heft makes it a bit hard to use in the field, the detail of habits, voice and nesting are unmistakable.

Skutch’s background in botany makes the accounts of feeding habits of fruit-eating birds sometimes excruciatingly detailed.

The reserve is near Rivas de Pérez Zeledón, which is close to San Isidro de El General about three to four hours from San José via the old highway to Panamá. The reserve is managed by the Centro Cientifico Tropical, the same organization that runs the Monteverde cloud forest reserve. Entrance fees are $10 with the usual discounts for residents and children.

There is about a kilometer of graveled trail though forest on the property along with the accessible gardens. The house itself was

restored after Skutch’s death but still sports the original structure and roof.

On request, caretakers will open the house to show the antique contents like a wood cookstove and hundreds of books about birds and philosophy. Pre-Columbian ceramic pieces found by Skutch himself suggest archaeological significance, but this has not been explored. The manual typewriter that produced so much is there in the office.

Skutch verged on poetry in some of his observations, like this segment from the 1973 book “Life of the Hummingbird:” 
“To me, a hummingbird was, and is, a fairylike bird, with a
tiny body of slender grace, that hovers, miraculously suspended between two broad sectors of misty light, like the separated halves of a halo, giving forth now and then a bright glint of green from its back, and sending out a low, murmurous humming from those wings vibrated into an unsubstantial haze, while it probes the cool depth of some bright corolla with a long and delicately slender bill.”

This picture of Alexander Skutch his wife, Pamela Lankester, is displayed prominently in the couple’s home.

This picture of Alexander Skutch his wife, Pamela Lankester, is displayed prominently in the couple’s home.

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