Antbirds and Ovenbirds: Their Lives and Homes.—Alexander F. Skutch. Illustrated by Dana Gardner. 1996. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX. xix + 268 pp., 16 black-and-white photographs, 55 line drawings, 6 tables. ISBN 0-292-77705-1. $19.95 (paper), $40.00 (cloth).
Alexander Skutch, now in his 90s, continues to publish his unique life-history overviews of Neotropical bird families. The stated goal of this tome is to familiarize “people in northern lands [with] two families of birds refreshingly different from those familiar to them at home.” Unlike the passerine families covered in other volumes (icterids, tanagers, and tyrant flycatchers), antbirds and Neotropical ovenbirds have no representatives north of Mexico.
The two families are discussed in about equivalent depth, and each part could easily stand as a book on its own. The information presented in each part is organized into largely parallel chapters, allowing readers to make comparisons among families. A general synopsis for each family is followed by detailed discussions of natural history and an overview of significance to humans. Each part also contains a detailed account of a single species representing the family. Those fascinating accounts, adapted from Skutch's earlier publications, fit well with the rest of the text and are a pleasure to read.
The author compiled results of more than six decades of his observations, supplemented with data from the literature. Given the vast information presented, the tables in this volume are especially welcome, not only facilitating comparisons, but also demonstrating how little is known of some aspects of biology (e.g., nest attendance, lengths of incubation and nestling periods). Unfortunately, sources of data from the literature were not provided in the antbird summary tables 3 and 5, nor in the only table of the ovenbird section. Although the literature source of most statements is clearly indicated in the text, some information cited is difficult to match with specific items in the bibliography. Furthermore, only English names are used in the text and they do not always follow standards developed for Neotropical birds. Although scientific names are provided in the Index, some species mentioned in the text (e.g., White-cheeked Antbird [Gymnopithys leucaspis]) are omitted from the index. Others (e.g., Wing-banded Hornero [Furnarius figulus]) are listed in the index without scientific names; a few scientific names are misspelled (e.g., Glyphorynchus, Seiurus, Sylviorthorhynchus).
Although most aspects of natural history are covered, the main focus of the book is on reproductive behavior, with separate chapters examining nest structure and construction behavior, eggs and incubation, care of nestlings, and breeding phenology. That area is where Skutch's nest finding ability, extraordinary patience and attention to detail, and training in botany really shine. Treatment of most topics is quite comprehensive, and most generalizations are accurate and well supported. Critical readers, nevertheless, should recognize problems with the plausibility of some of the adaptive explanations proposed by the author. For example, plain white antthrush eggs are hypothesized to have evolved to prevent egg breakage by adults incubating in dimly lit hollows. Skutch is apparently unaware that several thamnophilid antbirds (Gymnopithys, Phlegopsis, Rhegmatorhina) also nest in identical hollowed stumps, but lay heavily pigmented eggs. Some additional inaccuracies seem to reflect a Mesoamerican bias in the author's experience. For example, the statement that antbirds “avoid sun-bathed canopy” holds true only in Mesoamerica; in South America, however, several antbirds (e.g., Herpsilochmus and Terenura antwrens) are canopy specialists. It was also unfortunate to see such negative and unsubstantiated statements as “too many [ovenbirds] have been killed to fill the specimen trays of natural history museums” (p. 237), yet the acknowledgments state that museum specimens were used to produce all but one of the drawings in the book!
The author decided to treat antbirds and ovenbirds in the same volume apparently because of their phylogenetic affinities (p. xv). However, his discussions of systematic relationships do not reflect the current understandings of suboscine relationships. Skutch does not distinguish between the typical antbirds (Thamnophilidae) and the ground antbirds (Formicariidae). Worse still, he does not even mention that woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptidae) are the likely sister group of the ovenbirds, and are at times even submerged therein. Exclusion of woodcreepers is both surprising and unfortunate, given Skutch's broad experience and vast knowledge of them.
Dana Gardner's drawings of representative species are quite handsome and accurate. The artist's scratchboard technique lends itself well to subjects requiring dramatic contrasts such as most of the antbirds illustrated; the more uniformly-colored ovenbirds, on the other hand, often appear too dark. The illustrations correspond only loosely to the surrounding text, but are not merely decorative, and do help readers to visualize the tremendous diversity of forms and patterns in the two families.
It is worth mentioning (and the author himself was clearly too modest to do so) that the elegant Pale-faced Antbird illustrated on page 118 represents a unique genus, Skutchia, erected in honor of Skutch and his studies of Neotropical birds. In summary, Skutch's book, despite few shortcomings, is the most comprehensive compilation of information on natural history of antbirds and ovenbirds published to date. It will appeal particularly to naturalists interested in the Neotropics, amateur ornithologists, and graduate students seeking research questions. This informative and highly readable book should be part of every ornithological library.—KRZYSZTOF ZYSKOWSKI, Natural History Museum, and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org