Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Scientist in Costa Rica

While the whole world is flocking to the beauty and the biodiversity of Costa Rica, we cannot forget one of the first men to discover the magic of this Central American paradise, Alexander F. Skutch. Armed with his new doctorate in botany from Johns Hopkin University, Skutch left Baltimore in the late 1920s to study bananas in Panama.
As the story goes, Skutch sat in his office and watched a bird build a nest outside his window. This was the beginning of the botanist’s long love affair with birds. After a sojourn to South America, Skutch bought a farm in southern Costa Rica and married. He worked the farm and studied birds for thirty years. Living in isolation for periods of time, Skutch says that he was always safe and healthy. The only time he came close to danger was during the Costa Rican Civil War in 1948, when mercenaries roamed the countryside.
Since the Great Depression was raging in the USA, grant money to study birds was out of the question. After using his savings, Skutch found that by selling plants he could raise money to support his study of birds.
Skutch has catalogued the patterns of hundreds of species of birds in Costa Rica. What has made his studies different from others is that he has never killed a bird, except maybe a hawk in defense of smaller birds. All of Skutch’s specimens remained alive. He studied their patterns and habits, recording their histories. His farm became a haven for birds. Skutch has written many scientific and popular books on birds. In addition his records reveal much about mountains, rivers and the simple rural communities in which he has lived.
Today Skutch is a legend in Costa Rica. Those who have had the privilege of talking with him wear the distinction like a badge of honor. Sometimes a nature guide will mention meeting Skutch the way a kid will talk about meeting a soccer star. A quiet studious man Skutch has made a lasting mark on Costa Rica. His books are classics. He is referred to as the most famous scientist you never heard of.

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