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Jerram L. Brown
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Helpers at Birds' Nests: A Worldwide Survey of Cooperative Breeding and Related Behavior.—Alexander F. Skutch. 1999. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. xv + 298 pp., 62 drawings by Dana Gardner, foreword by Stephen T. Emlen. ISBN 0-87745-674-7. Paper, $24.95.—This book is a very slightly modified version of one published in 1987. It has the same number of pages in the main text and the same number of chapters as the first edition. To me it looks identical for all practical purposes. Additions are a forward by Stephen Emlen and a new preface by Skutch. Emlen points out that this book is “delightfully readable in the relaxed, engaging style for which Skutch is well known.” In my review of the first addition (Brown 1988), I recommended the book to bird watchers. Rereading my earlier review, which was very favorable in this respect, I am struck by how little my opinions about the book have changed. Unfortunately, however, the book is now severely out of date, and it appears that no new references have been added to the original text. This is not a book for scientists, but perhaps it will be appreciated by those who would rather have their natural history without the complications of science and scholarship and without knowledge of the many fascinating developments in the study of avian helping that occurred after Skutch published the first edition.

Although I can appreciate Skutch's love of the rambling naturalist's approach, I am reluctant to recommend this book to anyone who loves science or wants to know about the science behind the study of helping behavior in birds. I found no reference to W. D. Hamilton, without whose theory the study of helping would still be in the doldrums in which it reposed from 1935 to 1963. Nor is there a single reference to the numerous important papers of Rabenold on Campylorhynchus wrens (Rabenold 1984, 1985; Wiley and Rabenold 1984; Austad and Rabenold 1985, 1986; Rabenold et al. 1990, 1991). The most recent reference to Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick was in 1978, to Koenig and Mumme in 1983, to Emlen in 1984, and to myself in 1984. The exciting recent work on sex ratios in the Seychelles Warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis; Komdeur 1992, 1994; Komdeur et al. 1997) is, of course, not mentioned. Many other important omissions from the literature exist given that no references after 1984 are included in the first or second editions. Thus, an important niche remains unfilled.

We need a book for birders and other lay readers that conveys the excitement of the scientific study of bird behavior. A good model for such an approach is a recent treatment of natural selection in the Galapagos finches (Weiner 1994).

There is a sheep-like tendency among ornithologists to play follow-the-leader with regard to the terminology in this field, and I am as guilty as anyone. Consequently, the terms used in this book and elsewhere are not necessarily rational or usefully descriptive. Such terms as “cooperative,” “communal breeding,” and “helping,” are misleading at best. Cooperative breeders are, in some sense, cooperative, but not in breeding. They are rivals with respect to breeding. It is only in the rearing of young (especially their feeding) where one sees “cooperation” or helping. Other species that are not officially “cooperative breeders” actually do cooperate in breeding by giving alarm calls at colonies. Thus, I favor the terms “cooperative rearing” or “helper systems” and have stopped using “cooperative breeding” or “communal breeding.”

In summary, owners of the first edition do not need the second edition. Scientists do not need either edition, although the books are rich in references to the very early literature. Some birders and other lay readers may share my disappointment in the lack of coverage of the scientifically exciting aspects of the study of helping behavior.

Literature Cited


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Jerram L. Brown "HELPERS AT BIRDS' NESTS: A WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF COOPERATIVE BREEDING AND RELATED BEHAVIOR," The Auk 117(1), 272-273, (1 January 2000).[0272:R]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 January 2000
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