2019 Birders Meeting — Presentation Abstracts & Speaker Bios

Richard Prum, PhD, Yale University

Richard Prum is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University. He is an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist with broad interests in avian evolution, behavior, systematics, color production, color vision, the evolution of feathers, the theropod dinosaur origin of birds, and more. Prum has received the MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Fulbright Fellowships. His 2017 book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us, was named a "Top Ten Book of 2017" by the New York Times, and was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in General Non-Fiction. Prum's writing has been published in the The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Natural History, and Scientific American. A life-long birdwatcher, Prum has done field work on every continent. 

Presentation Abstract

Mate choice in birds is commonly thought to result in the evolution of honest signals that indicate objective information about mate quality. This talk will explore the original Darwinian idea that animals select their mates based on their subjective preferences– i.e. what they like. Consequently, ornaments are neither honest, nor manipulative; they are merely beautiful. We will explore the evolution of avian beauty in the lives of manakins, bowerbirds, birds of paradise, and pheasants.


Lorna Gibson, PhD, MIT

Lorna J. Gibson is the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.  Her research interests focus on the mechanics of materials with a cellular structure such as engineering honeycombs and foams, natural materials such as wood, leaves, and bamboo and medical materials such as spongy or trabecular bone and tissue engineering scaffold for regenerating damaged or diseased tissues. She is the co-author of Cellular Solids: Structure and Properties (with MF Ashby) and of Cellular Materials in Nature and Medicine (with MF Ashby and BA Harley). She is a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT’s top award for undergraduate teaching. She has served as Chair of the Faculty and Associate Provost at MIT. She is currently working on a book on how birds work from an engineering perspective, combining her love of birding, engineering and teaching.

Presentation Abstract

When we think of birds, we think of feathers. Feathers give birds their color, keep birds warm and dry and form the aerodynamic shape of the wing, enabling flight.  Specialized feathers even generate, suppress or collect sound.  The properties of feathers, their color, thermal insulation, water repellency, stiffness and control of sound, all depend on their microscopic structure. This talk describes how the microscopic structure of feathers gives rise to iridescent colors and to the generation, suppression and collection of sound.


Chris Leahy, Mass Audubon

Chris Leahy retired from Mass Audubon in the spring of 2017 after a 45-year career as a professional naturalist and conservationist, and he continues to work on selected conservation projects under the Bertrand Chair (emeritus). He was the first occupant of the Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology at the Massachusetts Audubon Society from 2001 to 2017.  His comprehensive interest in natural history began in childhood, and he is a recognized authority on birds and insects. During his long career at Mass Audubon, Chris has been deeply involved in all of Mass Audubon’s mission functions, including land protection, ecological management, scientific research, education, and advocacy.

Chris’s published works include The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (Princeton University Press, 2nd edition, 2004), The First Guide to Insects in the Peterson series (Houghton-Mifflin), Introduction to New England Birds (Mass Audubon), and The Nature of Massachusetts (Addison-Wesley). He is co-author (with Gombobaater Sundev) of the first comprehensive English language guide to the Birds of Mongolia to be published by Bloomsbury Press in the spring of 2018. He initiated Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds series, and co-authored the first two installments, published in 2011 and 2013 and is the editor of a series of authoritative books on the flora and fauna of New England.

Presentation Abstract

The extraordinary colors and patterns of avian plumage displayed in a remarkable variety of forms, have inspired artists and craftsmen through the ages to use depictions of birds—and even the birds themselves—as cultural icons. This presentation showcases the prominent part birds have played in our societies from Neolithic cave paintings and Egyptian hunting scenes to religious symbolism and classical painting with special emphasis on the critical role of art in the success of the bird conservation movement.


Nathan Pieplow, University of Colorado Boulder

Nathan Pieplow is the author of the Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds. An avid birder and experience bird sound recordist, he is a former editor of the journal Colorado Birds and an author of the Colorado Birding Trail. He teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Presentation Abstract

What bird uses its voice to echolocate inside dark caves? Which bird sings a duet with itself? Which bird sings over a thousand different songs? In this presentation for general audiences, I share some of my most remarkable audio from over a decade of recording birds in the field. You will see the sounds as well as hear them, and learn the stories of the birds that made them, and what some of those birds are actually saying.


Susan Edwards Richmond

Susan Edwards Richmond writes about the relationship between humans and wild nature. She is the author of five poetry collections and the children's picture book, Bird Count, forthcoming from Peachtree Publishers in October 2019. About her most recent collection, Before We Were Birds (2017), Fred Marchant writes: "With stunning imagery and gentle, meditative music, Richmond conjures a sense of sacred wildness in all things." A two-time winner of the Academy of American Poets prize, Susan served as poetry editor of Sanctuary: the Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and has published poems in Appalachia, Blueline, The Iowa Review, Poetry East, and Runes. She teaches in Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Community Preschool.

Presentation Abstract

Poets have been moved by bird song and identified with birds' mysterious beauty throughout literary history. This immersive reading offers a brief tour of bird-inspired poetry from the first known verse spoken in Hindi to Shakespeare's writings and contemporary work by Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder. Listeners can appreciate the deep connection these writers felt for their subjects, while turning inward to ask what birds mean in their own personal aesthetics.     


Joan Walsh, Mass Audubon

Joan Walsh is Mass Audubon's Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology. She has been watching—and learning from—birds for 35 years and was the Director of Bird Monitoring at Mass Audubon from 2006-2017. During her career she has focused on research that has direct implications for bird conservation. This interest led to enlisting hundreds of citizen scientists for the creation of the highly regarded Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2 and two State of the Birds of Massachusetts reports.

She was a Farallon Island biologist where she studied Elephant Seals, Tufted Puffins, Brandt’s Cormorants, Western Gulls, and even did a little Great White Shark work. She went to graduate school in Georgia, where she studied Wood Storks, and was the former Director of Research at Cape May Bird Observatory in NJ. Her formative years as an ornithologist were spent on Great Gull Island, NY, home to the largest colonies of Common and Roseate Terns in the North Atlantic.