Professor Honored for Outstanding Contributions to Bird Conservation Biology

February 16, 2010

The American Orinthologists' Union has awarded Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Steven R. Beissinger the 2009 William Brewster Memorial Award for his innovative contributions, outstanding research productivity, and long-standing dedication to conservation biology of birds in the Western Hemisphere.

Beissinger is an active research scientist who continues to make important and novel contributions to understanding the ecology, behavior and conservation of birds in the Western Hemisphere. His most recent work illustrates the depth of his scope, ranging from the impacts of microbes and ambient conditions on egg viability and avian life histories, to the effects of biased sex ratios on population dynamics.

Beissinger has had a long-standing commitment to the development of resources for conservation of birds in the Western Hemisphere. His field projects have provided training opportunities for >60 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Beissinger has been a superb research advisor, giving the members of his lab the necessary mentorship, training and encouragement for professional careers in ecology. He has provided opportunities for students in Latin America by teaching workshops in conservation biology and by organizing symposia at international meetings in Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.
Beissinger was instrumental in helping to form and provide early leadership for the Association for Parrot Conservation. The association brought together scientists from Latin America and North America with the shared goal of developing objectives for parrot conservation, including position statements on trade, sustainable use, ecotourism, captive breeding and reintroductions. At the same time, he was a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission for Sustainable Utilization. As part of these conservation efforts, Beissinger twice provided expert testimony to committees of the U.S. House of Representatives in support of authorization of the Exotic Wild Bird Conservation Act, legislation aimed at conserving parrots and other wild birds impacted by international trade.

Beissinger developed an early interest in tropical ecology during a field study of the foraging ecology of Snail Kites (Rostrhamus sociabilis) in Guyana. He received a Ph.D from the University of Michigan for his research in the Florida Everglades on the peculiar mating system of kites, one of a few species of birds with ambisexual mate desertion.

During his field work in the llanos, he noticed a local population of Green-rumped Parrotlets (Forpus passerinus) breeding in the hollow fence posts in cattle pastures at Hato Masaguaral, a private ranch that was an early field site for the Smithsonian Institution. Beissinger set up nest boxes and started a field project that eventually grew into one of the longest-term population studies of a tropical bird, with detailed research on behavior, reproductive biology, and demography.

Beissinger's interest in tropical birds has included the avifauna of Puerto Rico, where he studied Pearly-eyed Thrashers (Margarops fuscatus) nesting along an elevational gradient. Beissinger has developed projects on birds of conservation concern in the state, including Marbled Murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) breeding in old-growth redwoods, Black Rails (Laterallus jamaicensis) at inland wetlands, and subspecies of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) endemic to coastal saltmarshes.

Beissinger has made outstanding research contributions to three major areas of ornithology. In behavioral ecology, his studies of reproductive strategies of birds have helped to understand mating patterns and maintenance of social monogamy, the links between incubation behavior and hatching asynchrony, and the ecological factors leading to mate desertion.

Much of his research has been based on experimental protocols, including difficult manipulations of hatching asynchrony under field conditions. In evolutionary ecology, Beissinger's long-term population studies have been critical for understanding the demography of tropical birds, and for developing population models that identify determinants of population growth, including an intriguing new model for analyzing the causes of sex ratio bias.

One of his most novel lines of enquiry has been to investigate environmental constraints on egg-laying behavior of birds, including the effects of ambient temperature in hot, humid climates and the effects of pathogenic microbes on undeveloped eggs. This research has led to new insights into the causes of latitudinal variation in avian life history traits, a major unanswered question in evolutionary ecology.

In conservation biology, Beissinger has produced a series of important review articles on use of population models in conservation, and his research papers have applied these models to recovery efforts for California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus), Snail Kites, Marbled Murrelets, Puerto Rican Parrots (Amazona vittata), sea turtles, and African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus). One long-lasting contribution has been an international symposium that he organized in San Diego, which resulted in an edited book on Population Viability Analysis that summarized the state of the field and catalyzed further research. Conservation has always been a central theme in Beissinger's field research, and his recent studies of birds in California have developed new demographic and genetic approaches for investigating source-sink dynamics among spatially structured populations.

Innovative use of historical specimens and distributional data have allowed Beissinger and his colleagues at MVZ to examine trophic changes in seabirds associated with collapse of fisheries in the last century, and the impacts of global climate change of the distributions of terrestrial vertebrates in California.

In recognition of his contributions to ornithology and ecology, Beissinger has previously been honored by election as a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and the London Zoological Society, and by appointment to the Leopold Chair in Wildlife Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been a Plenary Speaker at six national meetings, including an AOU meeting at the University of Illinois and the Neotropical Ornithological Congress held in Maturín, Venezuela. Beissinger has been active in the AOU throughout his career, with terms as an Elected Councilor, Chair of the AOU Conservation Committee, and as a member of the AOU Awards Committee. He has also supported a range of professional societies with a conservation mandate, including service on the Board of Directors for the Cooper Ornithological Society, the National Audubon Society, and the Society of Conservation Biology, and as an Associate Editor for the editorial boards of the journals Conservation Biology, Ecology, and Ecology Letters.