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1 January 2000 HELPERS AT BIRDS' NESTS: A WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF COOPERATIVE BREEDING AND RELATED BEHAVIOR
Walt Koenig
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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.—Although touted as “an expanded edition,” this volume appears to be identical to that published in 1987, except for a new preface and the addition of Emlen's foreword. The latter, while providing a bit of interesting history, serves the useful, albeit unorthodox, purpose of warning readers against Skutch's treatment of evolutionary theory as it pertains to cooperative breeding. As for the main body of the book, it offers an overview of cooperative breeding that is organized systematically with more detailed summaries of in-depth studies performed on individual species within each group and is uncluttered by statistics, tables, or the usual complications of scientific progress. The bad news is that the book includes only studies available to Skutch when he wrote the first edition in the early 1980s. Consequently, the volume, which was already outdated in 1987 (Mumme, Auk 105:402–403, 1988), is woefully so now. As hard as it is to imagine a book on cooperative breeding published today that fails to cite work by Nick Davies on Dunnocks (Prunella modularis), Andrew Cockburn and Steve Pruett-Jones on Malurus fairy-wrens, Jan Komdeur on Seychelles Warblers (Acrocephalus seychellensis), and Kerry Rabenold on Campylorhynchus wrens, here it is. As a result, the book is frighteningly inadequate unless one is aware of how the field has advanced since the book was first written.

This is not to say that the book lacks redeeming features. Skutch is not just a fine naturalist, he is possibly the greatest avian natural historian alive today. The fact that he is still active at 95 is nothing short of amazing. The ornithological community is truly fortunate that he has devoted so much of his life to observing Neotropical birds and that he has made his observations so accessible as a result of his prolific writings. Skutch's contributions are legion and include the first review of cooperative breeding (Auk 52:257–273, 1935), which was published long before most of us were born, much less old enough to hold binoculars and write field notes. The multitude of natural history observations reported and summarized in this book are part of his vast legacy and, as such, deserve publication despite the lack of a modern evolutionary perspective. I'd even go so far as to condone a reprint of the original edition, in spite of it being obsolete, as long as the publisher made it clear that this is what it was. However, passing the volume off as “an expanded edition” when nothing substantive had been expanded is sleazy. I can only recommend it if (1) you don't have the 1987 edition, and (2) you have a shelf of “Skutchiana” that needs filling out.

Appendices

Walt Koenig "HELPERS AT BIRDS' NESTS: A WORLDWIDE SURVEY OF COOPERATIVE BREEDING AND RELATED BEHAVIOR," The Auk 117(1), 273-274, (1 January 2000). https://doi.org/10.1642/0004-8038(2000)117[0273:R]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 January 2000
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