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Ornithology lost one of its most productive and influential scientists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries with the passing of Storrs L. Olson on January 20, 2021, following a courageous battle with esophageal cancer. Storrs lived and breathed birds, especially from the standpoints of museum-based systematics, morphology, evolution, paleontology, biogeography, and nomenclature. His prolific and frank writings left one with little doubt about where he stood on the subject at hand. Storrs was born in Chicago on April 3, 1944, to Beatrice Lovejoy Olson and Franklyn C. W. Olson, then a PhD student in physical oceanography. Storrs developed a strong interest in fish and other aspects of natural history at a very early age, through his father and his father’s colleagues. The family moved to Tallahassee in 1950 when Franklyn became a professor at Florida State University (FSU), and Beatrice worked in banking. Storrs continued his interest in fish, but after a Christmas Bird Count with FSU ornithologist Henry Stevenson, Storrs became hooked on birds. His early opportunities for fieldwork with birds, with graduate student Horace Loftin, included netting and marking shorebirds in Florida and collecting birds and fish in Panama. Storrs published his first two scientific papers with Horace Loftin when he was 16 years old. Storrs received his BS from FSU and then briefly attended the University of Florida where he met Pierce Brodkorb, who became his unofficial mentor. Through his work in Panama, Storrs met the eminent Smithsonian ornithologist Alexander Wetmore, who helped him find various jobs at the Smithsonian, while he pursued a ScD (1972) at Johns Hopkins University. His doctoral dissertation, on the systematics, paleontology, and evolution of rails on South Atlantic islands, led to a close friendship with fellow rail-lover Dillon Ripley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. By March 1975, Storrs was hired as Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian, a position he held until 2008. Storrs loved collections-based fieldwork, whether with living or fossil birds. His travels took him to all continents except Antarctica. The author or coauthor of more than 400 scientific publications, Storrs Olson had an insightful and uncanny grasp on a huge variety of topics based to a large extent on blends of fieldwork, museum specimens, and meticulous library research. For instance, his 10 papers in the year 1980 dealt with modern megapodes, monarch flycatchers, antwrens, the Yellow Warbler, and Grasshopper Sparrow as well as fossils of pelecaniforms, flamingos, and anseriforms. Fast-forward a decade to 1990, we see 12 papers on modern shearwaters, boobies, hawks, sylviid warblers, and many other Old World passerines, such as the New Zealand Yellowhead and Fernbird, and fossil birds from St. Helena and the Bahamas, not to mention a note on “the stability of fish family names.” If we moved ahead to the years 2000 or 2010 or 2020, we would find writings of comparable variety. Among the flagship accomplishments of Storrs’s remarkable career, one rises to the top, his work on the fossil birds of the Hawaiian Islands, which he did with his first wife, Helen James. Their tireless efforts rewrote the avian systematics and biogeography of this archipelago, revealing radiations of birds never before dreamed to have occupied these hyper-remote islands. The Hawaiian Islands already were renowned as a global worst-case locality for avian extinction in modern times; Storrs and Helen demonstrated that the birds that survived there into the 19th century were just the tip of the iceberg. The avifauna that greeted the first Polynesians 1,000 years ago had been many times richer. Storrs was equally prolific in his studies of living and extinct birds in the West Indies and Bermuda. He also contributed mightily to the fossil record of Cenozoic continental birds, gladly leaving the original research on Mesozoic birds to others, even though Storrs freely expressed his opinions on the birds of dinosaur times (see below). Storrs was an extremely generous mentor to young avian paleontologists. I first met him at the 1975 American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) annual meeting in Winnipeg, just 5 months after he had been hired at the Smithsonian. Finishing my MS with Pierce Brodkorb in December of that year, I moved back to the family farm to give academia a break. I may have remained with the Holsteins had not Storrs offered me to stay at his house in Arlington, Virginia, during part of the summer of 1976, with income from identifying Puerto Rican bird fossils and free range in the Smithsonian bird collection. Through the years, he (and Helen) repeated that generosity, with me and so many others from around the world. He opened any door that he thought would be useful to younger colleagues, including providing funds for fieldwork and travel to other museums and entertaining nighttime conversation about anything that currently or formerly was feathered. As generous and charming as Storrs was, he had another side from which few persons or institutions were immune. Part of being a friend with Storrs was to tolerate his highly opinionated frankness. When my early work in the Galápagos and Cook Islands was featured on a Smithsonian World TV episode in 1986, Storrs called the next day to tell me that he “didn’t learn a thing” watching that show, the making of which had been “an utter waste of my time.” When I published the book Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds in 2006, I sent Storrs a copy. Again, he called, telling me that he hoped he wouldn’t be asked to write a review because he’d rather be my friend. (Not to worry, because someone else ended up trashing the book in a Storrs-like review.) Speaking of reviews, some of Storrs’s most widely read writings were his biting, unconventional reviews of publications. Who can forget his review (The Auk 112:539–546, 1995) of Walter Bock’s monographic History and Nomenclature of Avian Family-Group Names. Storrs called it (p. 540) “a sphagnum opus that is a bog of fatuous and sometimes inexplicable errors that can only be regarded as mire.” That passage in part reflected how much Storrs loved mosses. Regardless, in a fortunate twist of fate, Drs Bock and Olson became friends shortly thereafter. Storrs’s interest in mosses went much deeper than his use of them as a rhetorical devise. In 2008, the University of Connecticut created the Storrs L. Olson Bryological Library following the donation of more than 1,000 books and journals from Storrs (the library held 1,734 books in May 2020). Another memorable review, seven years later and also in The Auk (119:1202–1205, 2002), panned New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds edited by Jacques Gauthier and Lawrence Gall. The review began “One of the rituals of the Birds-Are-Dinosaurs-Movement (BADM) is to hold periodic symposia to reaffirm the belief that birds really are dinosaurs, much as Southern Baptists hold revival meetings. … Just as a revival tent is not the haunt of free-thinkers, there are few authors in this volume who depart from the true path and numerous papers consist of the cladogram-thumping dogma we have come to expect from the more insistent proponents of the BADM.” Once again, frankness trumped diplomacy, and we all knew right where Storrs stood on BADM. Nobody had a better command of the nomenclature of both living and extinct birds than Storrs. I think he knew the scientific name of every one of the world’s ~10,000 species. God save you if he believed that anything about a newly formed scientific name was improper. Combined with his wit and irreverence, conversations with Storrs always were peppered with purposely falsified names. While doing fieldwork with him in the Southwest in the early 1980s, for example, we called the Brown (now “Canyon”) Towhee Fusculo pipis rather than Pipilo fuscus. We called the Rock Wren Slapnictes oslobetus rather than Salpinctes obsoletus. Silly but lots of fun. We both were close to the late Pierce Brodkorb (1908–1992), who produced the seminal 5-part Catalogue of Fossil Birds from 1963 to 1978, which we gleefully but respectfully called the Fossilogue of Cattle Birds. Storrs had a healthy irreverence for learned societies that he perceived as “good ol′ boys’s clubs.” He consistently rejected offers to become an Elective Member or Fellow of the AOU, highly unusual for someone operating from the Smithsonian bully pulpit. He appreciated the less hierarchical approaches of the Wilson Ornithological Society (WOS), and Cooper Ornithological Society, which awarded him the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award in 1984. The WOS inaugurated the Storrs Olson Prize in 2009 to honor the author(s) of the best book review published each year in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology (Storrs won the prize in 2009 and 2011). Storrs was heavily involved in the early decades of the Society for Avian Paleontology and Evolution and hosted its quadrennial meeting in 1996. Storrs was elected to the Smithsonian Museum Division of Birds Hall of Fame, the most recent ornithologist to be so honored. He continued to be very active in research after his formal retirement from the Smithsonian in 2008. Storrs may have slowed down a bit physically in his last decade, but his mind remained as sharp as an Oxyruncus beak. They, whoever they are, threw away the mold when Storrs Olson came into the ornithological world. He wrote and said exactly what he thought, even at the risk of being Un Quemador de Puentes. We will miss him dearly. Storrs is survived by his wife Johanna Humphrey, by his children with Helen James, son Travis Olson, and daughter Sydney Olson, and a granddaughter, Linnea Louise Olson. He is also survived by a sister, Susan Wallace-Olson. I am grateful to Helen James for providing family details. Open in new tabDownload slide Storrs Olson in Uruguay, 2002 (photo courtesy of Christina Gebhard). Open in new tabDownload slide Storrs Olson in Uruguay, 2002 (photo courtesy of Christina Gebhard). Memorials Editor: Ted Anderson, email@example.com Copyright © American Ornithological Society 2021. All rights reserved. For permissions, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
Ornithology – Oxford University Press
Published: May 3, 2021
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