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Antbirds and Ovenbirds

Antbirds and Ovenbirds
Their Lives and Homes
Illustrated by Dana Gardner

Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Endowment, Number Thirty-one

January 1996
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
288 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 halftones, 55 line drawings, 6 tables |

Antbirds and ovenbirds, two of the five largest families of birds found only in the Western Hemisphere, have been among Alexander Skutch's favorites for more than six decades. In this book, he draws on years of observations to describe the life cycle of these fascinating birds, which inhabit Latin America from tropical Mexico to Tierra del Fuego.

Skutch covers all aspects of the birds' lives, including the various species in each family, food and foraging, daily life, voice, displays and courtship, nests and incubation, and parental care. He also recounts anecdotes from his own experiences, creating vivid pictures of antbirds foraging for the insects Skutch stirs up on walks through the rainforest and of ovenbirds repairing the observation holes that he opens in their elaborate nests.

As some of tropical America's least studied birds, antbirds and ovenbirds surely merit the extensive treatment given them here by one of our most distinguished senior ornithologists. Over fifty line drawings by noted bird artist Dana Gardner make this book a delight for both armchair and field naturalists.


Western Books Exhibition Award of Merit,

  • Foreword by David Snow
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. The Antbirds
    • 1. The Antbird Family
    • 2. Food and Foraging
    • 3. Daily Life
    • 4. Voice, Displays, and Courtship
    • 5. Nests
    • 6. Eggs and Incubation
    • 7. The Young and Their Care
    • 8. The Black-faced Antthrush
    • 9. Parental Devotion
    • 10. Nest Success, Breeding Seasons, and Survival
    • 11. Antbirds and Humans
  • Part II. The Ovenbirds
    • 12. The Ovenbird Family
    • 13. Food and Foraging
    • 14. Daily Life
    • 15. Voice, Displays, and Courtship
    • 16. Nests
    • 17. Eggs and Incubation
    • 18. The Young and Their Care
    • 19. The Rufous-fronted Thornbird
    • 20. Enemies, Nest Success, and Survival
    • 21. Ovenbirds and Humans
  • Bibliography
  • Index

A resident of Costa Rica from 1941 until his death in 2004, Alexander Skutch was the author of many books and articles on natural history.


By far the richest in bird life of Earth's six major faunal regions is the Neotropical, which stretches from the northern limit of rain forests in central Mexico through Central America and over the whole of South America to Cape Horn and also includes the West Indies. Among the many peculiarly New World families found in this region, five contain over two hundred species. Three of these big families—the American flycatchers, hummingbirds, and tanagers—have expanded northward into the United States, Canada, and the Antilles; the two that are the subjects of this book, the antbirds and ovenbirds, are confined to the Neotropical mainland and a few neighboring islands. Although quite different in appearance and habits, the two are placed next to each other in our systems of classification. These passerine birds are called "suboscines" because of their simpler vocal organs and other differences from the songbirds, or "oscines." In nesting habits and the care they take of their young, they are no less advanced than the songbirds.

After more than six decades of bird study in tropical America, some of my most cherished memories are of antbirds. They have followed me for long distances through the rain forest, catching the insects stirred up by my feet or a stick. Valiant guardians of their eggs and young, they have nipped the fingers that touched their nest. They have continued to incubate while I set a camera on a tripod a yard away and photographed them. I have watched them defend their territories by striking displays that avoided fighting. In long vigils, I have admired the parents' close cooperation at their nests. Other naturalists have described how antbirds lead the flocks of mixed species that forage through Amazonian forests, warning their associates when they detected danger. Pacific birds, they live in harmony with their feathered neighbors.

With about 250 species, antbirds are the third largest family confined to the New World, exceeded in numbers only by the flycatchers and hummingbirds. More than any other great family, they are confined to wooded regions of the tropics and subtropics, rarely rising to the altitudinal temperate zone. In the ecology of the rain forests, they play important roles. Although brilliant in neither plumage nor voice, many are attractively attired in colors that blend into the deep shadows of tall forests, and their simple songs are pleasant to hear. The nests of most species are well made and faithfully attended.

The designation "antbird" is unfortunately misleading. Like many other names of New World birds, we owe it to Europeans who described lifeless stuffed skins without knowing much about the habits of the living birds. The family name, Formicariidae, is derived from Formicarius (from the Latin formica, "ant"), given in 1783 to one of its less typical but earliest described members. "Antbird" is an English approximation to this scientific name. It is appropriate only for the few species that regularly follow the army ants whose legions swarm over the ground in tropical woodlands, stirring up insects, spiders, and a host of other small creatures that are readily caught by birds while they try to escape the ants. Even the "professional" ant followers rarely eat the ants themselves. Most antbirds forage through trees and shrubs for a wide variety of small invertebrates.

Ovenbirds are an amazing family. Modestly clad in shades of brown, with only here and there a spot of spectral color, they do not attract attention by the brilliance of their attire, but their diverse tails help break the monotony of their plumage. As though to compensate for their plainness, they build a fascinating diversity of nests, including some of the most elaborate and largest made by passerine birds that do not live in avian apartment houses like those of Sociable Weavers and Palmchats. They are, above all, architects and builders. Moreover, they are extremely adaptable, living at all altitudes from seacoasts to the edges of perennial Andean snowfields, and in habitats as diverse as grasslands and tropical rain forests, marshes and arid deserts. To match the diversity of life-styles of this great Neotropical family, one must turn to a number of families of passerine birds of other lands, even to woodpeckers.

With about 214 species the fifth largest family of birds peculiar to the New World, ovenbirds are confined to South America, Central America, and tropical Mexico. None reaches the United States, where the Ovenbird belongs to the very different wood warbler family. Its domed nest of vegetable materials only superficially resembles the solid structures of hardened clay, miniatures of the domed baking ovens (hornos), formerly widespread in Latin America, made by several species of horneros in tropical and temperate South America. As occasionally happens in ornithology, the family has been named Furnariidae for one of its least typical genera. Only six of its species build ovens of clay; whereas scores of species make impressive closed nests of carefully interlaced sticks, often so much larger than their small builders that they might be called the birds' castles, and the family to which they belong, castlebuilders.

Whatever the name we give them, these attractive birds richly reward study of their evolution, ecology, and general behavior, including the advanced social life of some. Regrettably, they have received too little attention. In the most thorough monograph of the family, published by the American Museum of Natural History in 1980, Charles Vaurie listed 107 species—half the total number—for which he could find no or very little information on nesting. In 1983, the Asociación Ornitológica del Plata (the Argentine Ornithological Society) published Nidificación de las aves Argentinas (Dendrocolaptidae y Furnariidae), by S. Narosky, R. Fraga, and M. de la Peña. This small book contains detailed descriptions of the nests and eggs of the numerous ovenbirds resident in that country, information on breeding seasons, and excellent drawings of the nests, adding important information about them. Nevertheless, most of the gaps in our knowledge of ovenbirds' breeding, especially of the tropical species, remain unfilled.

Well-rounded life history studies are few; one of the most thorough that has come to my attention is that of the Rufous Hornero in Argentina by my friend Rosendo Fraga. For sixty years I have learned all that I could about nine species in Central America and one, the Rufous-fronted Thornbird, in Venezuela. The paucity of studies of ovenbirds' life histories cannot be attributed to the difficulty of finding their nests, as in the case of antbirds. In open or semiopen country, their large structures are often visible from afar, and many are not too high to be reached with or without a ladder. Unfortunately, to learn what they contain, one must often make a small hole in the wall; and no matter how carefully it is closed by the investigator and the birds themselves, such disturbance seems often to diminish the nests' success. Other ovenbirds lay their eggs and rear their young at the ends of long tunnels that they excavate in the ground, or in crevices amid rocks, where also they are not easy to see. These difficulties should challenge rather than discourage dedicated field naturalists.

Despite the large gaps in our knowledge of ovenbirds, as of other families of Neotropical birds, enough is known about their different types—the forest-dwellers and the pampas-dwellers, the castlebuilders and the burrow-diggers—to undertake a wide survey of an extraordinary family of birds. By their industry, tameness, or both, some of these birds have endeared themselves to their human neighbors. I hope that this book will interest people in northern lands in two families of birds refreshingly different from those familiar to them at home, make new friends for these birds, promote their conservation in shrinking habitats, and perhaps stimulate a few adventurous spirits to undertake field studies of important avian families that have been too neglected. If it accomplishes this, I shall feel amply rewarded for the labor of writing it.

Scientific names of all birds mentioned in the text are given in the Index.


“Little has been written about the ovenbird family, although its members are numerous and widespread south of our borders. Hence, Antbirds and Ovenbirds should prove enormously popular with birders. . . . Few authors write more movingly or eloquently about their subjects [than Alexander Skutch].”
Houston Chronicle

“Skutch is a most notable researcher of these birds, with more than 50 years of resident fieldwork in the neotropics. Here he presents a first-time synthesis of virtually all that is known about the behavior and ecology of these two major bird groups. Particular attention is given to the nesting biology, parental devotion, and care of the young. Comparisons of courtship displays and vocalizations are also rich in detail, and often presented in an evolutionary context. Skutch's botanical background enhances his discussions of foraging habitats and bird diets. Conservationists will appreciate the two chapters devoted to the human impacts on these families of neotropical specialists. Throughout, the book is generously enhanced by nest photographs and evocative drawings of representative species.”

“Forget tanagers and toucans; it is the suboscines, the antbirds (Formicariidae, in the broad sense) and ovenbirds (Furnariidae) and the like, dull in plumage but of fascinating biology, that captivate many a field ornithologist with experience in the Neotropics. Yet most of what is known about these birds, what little there is, has remained scattered in the primary literature. The renowned naturalist Alexander F. Skutch has written a book, full of fascianting information, that goes a long way towards filling this void. . . . Skutch has read widely about each family and effectively integrates what others have learned with his own original observations. . . . Antbirds and Ovenbirds served as an excellent introduction to the natural history of two major radiations of bird species that dominate the New World tropics and should spur ever more studies of these poorly known families.”

“His text is full of anecdotes and details from his vast experience in the field and contains abundant citations to others' work. For the reader who is stimulated by authoritative descriptions of the breeding, feeding habits, social life of birds, and their habitats, [this book is] all one might hope for.”
Aububon Naturalist News

“Alexander Skutch is unmatched as a careful observer of bird behavior.... He also has a gifted command and control of the English language...delightful entertainment for anyone with curiosity about nature.”
William Belton, author of Birds of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil