Susan Smith

Citation for 2002 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Picture the field biologist stealthily pursuing her subject. Winter, summer, spring and fall, she is there observing creatures as they woo and mate, care for their young, and struggle to survive in good times and bad. Images of male mountain goats batting heads in competition for chosen mates come to mind, and perhaps a grinning chimp in the arms of Jane Goodall, or even Sigourney Weaver in a primitive cabin amidst the mountain gorillas. Who knew such life and death struggles were going on in our own back yards? Susan Smith knew, and she has opened our eyes to the equally intriguing world of birds.

Susan's enchantment with birds began as a child and, although her true love affair is with the chickadee, Susan will go anywhere and do almost anything to study any kind of bird. From Alaska to Costa Rica to New Zealand to Papua New Guinea she has gone after the rare and elusive as well as the well-known birds of the region. Yet Susan's pursuit of birds is more than a bird-watcher's search for another "notch" on a lifetime list. As her colleagues attest repeatedly, she looks at birds with a different eye. She begins with profound questions followed by astute observations and elegantly designed experiments to test her hypotheses. Susan's early work on the response of naïve birds to coral snake color patterns using this approach has become a textbook example in discussions on warning coloration and innate avoidance. She later uncovered the "underworld" of rufous-collared sparrows by observing the floater (the non-territorial) populations. Susan found a highly structured social system that controls the interplay between these birds and the breeding populations. This work is widely cited as the first on such relationships that have since been demonstrated in numerous other species. The papers resulting from her studies are models of clarity and conciseness and appear in the most prestigious professional journals, but she also makes her research accessible to the layperson, through talks at ornithology and nature clubs across the country, in Natural History and popular magazines, and in films on public television.

Over ten years ago, a colleague noted that Susan was among the best field ornithologists in the world, and that continues to be true. She is a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union, the oldest and most prestigious professional ornithological organization in this country and, in 2000, she received the Margaret Morse Nice Medal from the Wilson Ornithological Society. The latter award is notable in several ways. First, it comes from a most respected society for both professional and amateur ornithologists. Second, the medal was established in honor of one of the countries most distinguished ornithologists and naturalists. Her research on the song sparrow, one of the earliest documented long-term studies of an animal species, initiated a new era in American ornithology. Lastly, Margaret Morse Nice was a Mount Holyoke graduate in the class of 1906 who received an honorary Doctorate of Science from Mount Holyoke in 1955. What more fitting home for the Nice award than in the hands of Susan Smith.

For most of us, however, this internationally respected scientist is the "Chickadee Lady." For over 30 years she has chronicled the life of these familiar little birds, and for over 20 of those years she has been an ever-present shadow at our bird feeders. Because chickadees are long-term residents in an area, and are monogamous during the breeding season, she can become well acquainted with each of the birds and its offspring over a long period of time. This allows her to see relationships not evident to the casual observer. With patience and a careful eye to discriminate among the combinations of colored bands on their tiny ankles, she has uncovered a veritable soap opera of chickadee life: cuckoldry, fortune-hunting widows, henpecked males, domineering females, promiscuity, and with indomitable enthusiasm and wit she has shared her passion, and theirs, with us. Each of us read avidly to identify "our" black-capped chickadees among the characters in her classic book on their behavioral ecology and natural history.

These wonderful stories, along with those of sparrows, motmots, and kiskadees, illustrate so well that profound answers may be found in the most unlikely places, when the questions are asked by a creative mind and the answers pursued with patience and integrity by a dedicated scientist like Susan Smith.