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"I really think we are living in a sort of golden age of South American ornithology, both for people who study birds and for people who just want to see birds." If you have been following the headlines about global warming and tropical-forest destruction, that statement by ornithologist Robert Ridgely may sound a bit divorced from reality. Doesn't he know about the burning of Amazonia?

As it happens, he does. He has seen devastation of the natural landscape from the Isthmus of Panama to the Straits of Magellan. But he has also seen an explosion in our knowledge of South American birds. Thanks to some of the good features of development--such as the jet airplane--we have not only discovered species previously unknown, but we have also amassed mountains of information about the ranges, habitats, and behavior of the birds of the continent richest in bird life.

Ridgely's own introduction to the birds of the Neotropics came in 1967, when Uncle Sam sent him to Panama to guard the ramparts of empire as an Army lieutenant. A birder from childhood, he was excited at the possibilities his duty station opened to him. But he soon found his excitement tempered by a large amount of frustration. Accustomed to operating in the States with the superb field guides of Roger Tory Peterson and others, he found himself puzzling over books intended more for scientific collectors than bird-watchers. A scientist with a dead bird in his hand needs careful, detailed description. Bird-watchers need a quick look at characteristics actually visible in the field.

Fortunately, Ridgely met Alexander Wetmore and Eugene Eisenmann, scientists who had done major work in the country, and with their help began to sort out all the confusing woodcreepers, flycatchers, and antbirds that had been making his life difficult.

Building on his own experience and the work of Wetmore, Eisenmann, and many others, Ridgely published A Guide to the Birds of Panama in 1976. Illustrated by John A. Gwynne, the book gave tropical birders a guide equal in quality to the North American books of Peterson and others. It was a considerable project. Panama is about the size of South Carolina, but its location at the meeting point of the avifaunas of North and South America has given it a total list of more than 880 species, more birds than have ever been reported in North America north of the Rio Grande.

Ridgely's book came out just three years after Peterson published his guide to Mexico. Guides to Colombia and Venezuela have followed, and a guide to the birds of Peru is in the works. Now Ridgely has made the biggest and most daring jump of all with the publication of the first volume of The Birds of South America (University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, $65, cloth bound).

This first volume covers the oscine passerines. The next volume--which Ridgely reports as about half finished--will cover the suboscine passerines. Subsequent volumes will cover nonpasserine land birds and nonpasserine water birds.

About half the world's species of birds belong to the order Passeriformes, also called perching birds because the structure of their feet gives them considerable facility at grasping twigs, tree limbs, and telephone wires. All our familiar songbirds--robins, cardinals, finches, warblers, wrens, starlings, and blackbirds--are passerines. They are oscine passerines because they possess a highly developed vocal apparatus that enables them to create all those beautiful songs.

Suboscine passerines have much simpler noisemaking equipment. They are generally regarded as a more primitive form than the oscine passerines and in most of the world are a minor part of the avifauna. In South America, however, they are everywhere. One group of them, the tyrant flycatchers, has even colonized the temperate zone. Our kingbirds and phoebes are tyrant flycatchers. In the tropics you can add antbirds, cotingas, manakins, and other large and diverse groups to the list.

This first volume is an amazing work. Thirty-one excellent color plates by Guy Tudor provide pictures of about 450 different species. The pictures, with few exceptions, show at least one member of every genus covered in the book. The text, 500 pages of it, includes identification information, habitat and behavior, references to similar species, and a range description. Range maps are also provided for nearly all species.

Some of the species described in the book were just discovered in the past 20 years. Others had been a part of museum collections for many years, but were virtually unknown as wild creatures. Some still fall into the latter category. Under habitat and behavior for the buff-bellied tanager, a bird of northwestern Peru, Ridgely can say only "Nothing appears to be on record." For a few particularly rare and elusive species, the only notation is "Unknown from life."

But for the great majority of the birds in this volume, the data are remarkably complete. Remarks like "locally common in undergrowth of low scrubby woodland, especially along streams" or "fairly common in middle and upper strata of humid forest" are typical. It has taken hundreds of thousands of field hours to gather information like that, and a great many of those hours were put in by amateurs.

People whose knowledge comes more from practical experience than from formal education have long played a major role in ornithology, and The Birds of South America shows they are still at it. Much of Ridgely's data on range, status, habitat, and behavior was supplied by birders visiting South America and keeping careful track of what they saw. Ridgely got some of this information from personal interviews. Some of it came from informal publications, Xeroxes of annotated bird lists that birders sent to their friends after making a South American tour.

Much lore of this kind circulates through the birding community, almost as an oral tradition. It took someone with Robert Ridgely's combination of academic training and birding contacts to combine the scientific literature and the oral tradition in a single, compact, and highly convenient source.

Ridgely has also used his birding skills to finance some of his own fieldwork in South America. He works part-time as a guide for Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, leading birders on expeditions in search of the maximum number of species in the shortest possible time. Over the course of the next year he will be guiding tours to Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador. These tours, he told me, have been very helpful. He could not have gotten enough foundation grants to finance all the travel he needed to do to produce this work.

Somehow, even while producing the first volume of The Birds of South America, Ridgely found time to expand his Panama guide. The second edition carries the title A Guide to the Birds of Panama With Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras (Princeton University Press, $49.50, cloth bound) and adds about 300 species to the original edition. Costa Rica is attracting the attention of birders as a good place to enjoy the tropics without getting shot, so this excellent guide is a welcome addition.

Of course, the irony here is that these excellent books are becoming available at precisely the moment when our assault on the environment is threatening the lives of the birds we hope to see. A chapter on conservation in The Birds of South America includes a six-page list of species whose continued existence is threatened by loss of habitat.

Robert Ridgely knows that his golden age could end very soon if habitat destruction continues at its present rate. But he does have some hope for the future. His hope is partly based on the growing numbers of North Americans who, aided by books like his, are acquiring a powerful emotional attachment to the richness of tropical bird life.

He is also encouraged by the increasing numbers of Central and South Americans who are finding joy in learning about the wonders of their own countries. "There aren't many of them," he told me, "and they may be too late. But 20 years ago there weren't any. They represent a major change."

In hopes of encouraging them, a percentage of the royalties from both of these books is being set aside to finance Spanish and Portuguese translations. Many problems stand in the way of the translations--not least among them the lack of uniformity in vernacular names for the birds--but Ridgely is hopeful that they will happen soon. Our best hope of preserving the birds of Central and South America will come from the active involvement of the people of the region.

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