For our first July book review, let's take a look at an older book that is not exactly about ants, but is related. At a recent stop at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gift shop, I managed to snag a copy of Antbirds & Ovenbirds: Their Lives and Homes by Alexander F. Skutch. This book, which is currently out of print, was originally published by the University of Texas, Austin in 1996. Of course I was mostly interested in the antbirds.
What exactly are antbirds?
You may not have heard of these somewhat elusive birds that live mostly in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Antbirds are named for their habit of foraging alongside army ant swarms, mostly Eciton burchellii. They grab insects and other small creatures that scuttle, jump or fly up in an effort to try to avoid the approaching army ants. They do not feed extensively on the army ants themselves.
Antbirds are not easy to study. There are over 250 species in three families, and more are being discovered each year. The smallest of the antbirds are called antwrens. Other groups are the antvireos, antshrikes, antthrushes and antpittas, named for the colorful pitta birds of the Old World. Some have small crests, like our familiar Northern cardinal or blue jay. Most are striking mixes of reddish-brown, black, white and gray. Each has its own way of following the ants and exhibits different behaviors and food preferences.
Author Alexander Skutch was a naturalist who was born in the United States, but moved to Costa Rica and lived there until his death in 2004. Originally trained as a botanist (he obtained his doctorate in that field), he switched to studying the birds of Central and South America, including the antbirds. He wrote some 200 books on various aspects of bird biology, as well as other topics. Accompanying the text are black and white drawings by Dana Gardner.
In Antbirds & Ovenbirds, Skutch discusses the behavior of army ants, too, because it is what drives the birds. He addresses the nomadic phase and the static phase of the colony cycle. He also spends quite a bit of time dispelling the myths about the feeding habits of New World army ants. He gives examples of his own observations that show that antbirds are not in danger from the ants and that the New World army ants do not feed on vertebrates, even dead ones.
Stutch was a keen observer and has many interesting insights. Some of his narrative wanders a bit, but it is personal and charming. His account of a bicolored antbird that followed him in his travels through the forests over a series of months, capturing the arthropods Skutch kicked up, is both funny and heartwarming.
If you are interested in the natural history of unique birds or you are planning a trip to the tropics, then you might want to take a look at this book. Although out of print, through the wonders of modern technology you can find an excerpt at Google Books and you can download an electronic copy at Powell's (for a fee), as well as find used copies for sale.
For more information on antbirds and army ants, try:
The Army Ant Entourage at Myrmecos
Photographs and information about antbirds in the family Thamnophilidae
Photographs and information about antpittas of the family Grallariidae
Other books by Alexander F. Skutch: