Positions and Achievements
20 Questions and More with Frank Gill
When did you first get interested in birds?
When I was seven years old, my grandfather showed me a Song Sparrow at a birdbath in Teaneck, NJ. This was the first time I saw a bird through binoculars. I saw the big spot on the breast and I was hooked…. the power of identification. I remember, “Wow! This is neat!”
Who were your early birding influences?
I was most influenced by my grandfather, Frank Rockingham Downing. Members of the Hackensack Audubon Society who carted my brother, sister, and me all over New Jersey to see birds when we were young also influenced me along with Irv Black of the Urner Bird Club.
When did you decide to become a professional ornithologist, and what were the factors that led to this decision?
There was no specific “when.” I just kept focusing on birds because I loved studying and watching them. I wanted to be a forest ranger or some such job that let me work out of doors. Then I found a group of birders at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan and the career just happened.
Where did you attend college and where did you get your degree in ornithology?
I attended the University of Michigan for both undergraduate and graduate.
Were you raised in the Philadelphia area or did you only settle here later?
I was raised in Teaneck, New Jersey and moved to the Philadelphia area when I began to work at the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP).
Who are some of your favorite birding companions in the field?
My brother Doug has been a birding pal for many years and Bob Ridgely and I have had a lot of fun and adventures birding together over the years. But my favorite birding companion is my wife, Sally Conyne. My non-human birding companions are Merlin, an English Setter who points Ipswich Sparrows, and Raven, and a Labrador who spots turkeys in trees.
Prior to joining the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia (ANSP) in 1969 what did you do?
I was in graduate school doing fieldwork for my thesis on the white-eyes of Reunion. I was also working for the Smithsonian surveying seabirds in the Indian Ocean.
Your tenure at the ANSP from 1969-1994 was a very fruitful one. Of what achievements were you most proud?
I hope that I helped to connect ornithology with the general public and with the bird watching community. Part of that process was the creation of VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology) and starting BNA (Birds of North America). I enjoyed launching an era of modern ornithology at the Academy. Keys to that accomplishment were the building with labs for analyzing DNA, re-housing the collection in modern compactors, and hiring a number of great ornithologists.
During your tenure at ANSP you initiated several new programs, including the BNA. What was the impetus to start such a huge project? Are you pleased with the results?
I only started it because I had no idea what I was getting into….sheer foolishness. In the end, it was fun and, yes, I’m thrilled with the results and where it’s headed with Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
The ANSP is going through some tough times. Is this the beginning of the end for the ANSP or are brighter days ahead?
The Academy has been around for 200 years. It has seen its share of good times and tough times. Currently, many NGOs are struggling. The Academy will adjust and weather these difficult times.
You joined the DVOC in 1969. Why did you join?
It was an honor to be able to join one of the great, old bird clubs in the country. It was one of the big advantages of coming to the Academy and the Philadelphia area. Birding and birders are an important part of my life.
On what kind of projects would you like to see the DVOC and ANS working together?
I’d like to see the two working together on local projects like the East Park Reservoir. I’d like to see them working on outreach to get more people, especially kids, into birding and environmental awareness. I’d like to see them coordinating their efforts to show Philadelphia and beyond what a treasure they have in the Academy.
You have traveled extensively. Have most of these been collecting trips?
No…after the 1960’s many have been for research on nectar-feeding birds or just plain birding enjoyment. In the 60’s, collecting trips were my priority
Are the rumors true, that on one collecting expedition in the tropics, your native guides/porters deserted the expedition, that the country side was inhabited by a tribe of cannibals, and that the expedition was reduced to eating catfish caught in the streams to survive? If so can you elaborate on this?
Yep, except the cannibal part…read Bob Peck’s Headhunters and Hummingbirds for details. Catfish sucker lips are pretty good in a pinch.
What have been some of your favorite destinations and why?
I loved working and traveling in Kenya. I spent parts of eight years there and really got to know it….great birds and other wildlife, great people, great climate and lots of sunbirds. I like the high altitude Andes. Tanager flocks, super hummingbirds, big vistas….Wow! A couple of other favorites are Madagascar and the upper Amazon and all southern oceans because of albatrosses.
Do you have any travel goals….places you have yet to visit that are top travel priorities?
You bet….first, I’d like to go to the Foja Mountains of New Guinea, the site of that amazing expedition last December. Then I’d like to travel more broadly there. I want to savor seabird diversity from New Zealand to the Ross Ice Shelf and Antarctica. And then I’d like to explore Australia from top to bottom. After I finish all of that, I’ll start my quest to see all of the pittas of the world.
You have written the most widely used Ornithology textbook in college-level classes. What inspired you to write this book? Is there another addition forthcoming?
I needed a book with an evolutionary perspective to use with the course I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. The third edition is in the works and is scheduled to be out for the fall of 2006.
In 1996 you became Vice President of Science at National Audubon. How did this job differ from your responsibilities at the Academy?
Fundamentally it was a move from the realm of fairly pure science to conservation education, politics, and partnerships including the daunting task of providing for a half million, grass roots Audubon members.
What are the major advances that have been made in Ornithology now that we are in the 21st century?
There are several. The diversity of fossil birds in the Cretaceous period which is giving us the history of modern birds from dinosaurs, the discovery of the relationships of modern birds based on the comparison of DNA sequences, the discovery of the importance of extrapair fertilizations on the breeding systems of most species and the growth of citizen science in monitoring the changes in populations and contributing to the conservation of species.
With the announcement in April 2005 of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers being re-found, you had a very memorable quote. “This is huge…just huge. It is kind of like finding Elvis.” While this news certainly gave birding a shot-in-the-arm with the Department of the Interior funding a $10 million initiative to buy, lease and encourage conservation of more land in the Arkansas-Louisiana region, we later learned that this money actually is being taken away from species of special concern. How do you feel about putting “all our eggs in one basket?”
Bird conservation in the US, much less worldwide, is a much larger effort than $10 million. This “contribution,” wherever it comes from, is a token. We need to think bigger and we need an administration that thinks bigger and cares. Repairing and protecting global ecosystems needs huge, long-term commitments.
There has been much debate about the validity of the IBWP observations. Do you think the recent and coming papers written against this sighting and related debate damage the image of birding and conservation biology efforts in the eyes of the public?
Open questioning and debate is are the very essence of good science. They re-affirm the importance of verifiable documentation of rare birds. This is the same process by which reports of cloning advancements need to be questioned and replicated.
Two potential fatal viruses have affected the avifauna in recent years – West Nile Virus (WNV) and Avian Flu. What are the global and local implications of these diseases?
Diseases such as these pose significant threats to small populations of bird species especially on islands where they have lost their resistance. But continental bird populations have well-developed, broadly responsive immune systems that protect the majority of those populations. Over the many years, natural selection favors resistant individuals. We see this in the birds of Europe which exhibit strong resistance to WNV for example. However, global warming will certainly increase the frequency and spread of new wildlife diseases.
Do we need more professional ornithologists? If so, can groups like DVOC help in any way?
We need more professional ornithologists like Frank Chapman, Chan Robbins and Witmer Stone who can connect academic ornithology to the general public and to effective conservation policies.
If DVOC could pay $10,000 to support ornithological research in the next two years, what kind of projects would you suggest the club support? Would such funds be well used to support an internship in the Academy's Bird Dept?
The greatest contribution to birds that ornithological societies can make is to encourage, mentor, and connect young birders/ornithologists. Take them birding, connect them to ornithologists. Provide scholarships to places like Hog Island and the Puffin Project or the Arizona VENT camp. A summer intern in the bird department of the Academy is a great idea. When I was a youngster, I would’ve thought an opportunity like that was a dream come true.