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Professor Ned Johnson, a renowned ornithologist who specialized in Western North American birds, dies at age 70

 Ned Keith Johnson
Ned Keith Johnson.
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– Ned Keith Johnson, a world-renowned ornithologist who was a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a curator of ornithology at the campus's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, died June 11 after a courageous 15-year battle with cancer. He was 70.

Johnson died peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones. He was just weeks away from a planned retirement from UC Berkeley, after 43 years of teaching, research and other service to the campus.

Born in Reno, Nev., on Nov. 3, 1932, Johnson first became hooked on birds at the age of 7 while in a park with his mother. A Red-shafted Flicker caught his eye when it lit in a tree four feet away. "It happened in an instant," he told a reporter from "Living Bird," an ornithology publication from Cornell University, in 1996. "I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. That flicker just crystallized things for me."

He discovered a new dimension to birding in high school when he began collecting birds as scientific specimens. While holding birds in his hand, he found extensive variation within single species. Over the years, he collected and prepared more than 7,200 specimens, most of which are in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and available for study.

"Every single one (bird) has taught me something," he was quoted as saying in the "Living Bird" article.

Although Johnson studied birds throughout North, Central and South America, his primary interest was variation, speciation and evolution of birds in Western North America. He published his first paper on birds in 1949, at age 17. Since then, his scientific writings have grown into an impressive collection of 125 publications, including a co-edited book, "A Century of Avifaunal Change in Western North America," and the 829-page "Checklist of North American Birds," which he co-authored.

At the time of his death, Johnson was writing a book on geographic variation and speciation in birds. He also was working on several ongoing studies of variation in Western bird species.

"He held the highest standards in research and teaching," said Carla Cicero, a curator and researcher at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology who was Johnson's partner and close colleague. "His knowledge of the distribution and natural history of birds in Western North America, and his scientific contributions to the ornithology of this region, are unsurpassed among living ornithologists."

Among the many birds he studied, Johnson was considered an expert on owls, sapsuckers, flycatchers, vireos and Sage Sparrows.

His major contributions include a recent description of a new species of flycatcher from Peru, and two monographs and several papers on variation and speciation in Empidonax flycatchers, a group renowned for their similar external appearance. This work is among the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of variation and speciation within any group of birds and offers a model for the evolution of sibling species that can be applied widely within ornithology.

"One of the things that distinguished him," said Cicero, "was his effort to keep up with modern techniques for studying how bird populations and species are related evolutionarily. He didn't hesitate to bring new methods to old problems, including molecular techniques for studying genetic variation and quantitative methods for analyzing variation in plumage color and voice."

Johnson joined the UC Berkeley faculty immediately after earning his PhD in zoology from the campus in 1961. Over the years, he taught primarily ornithology, biogeography and vertebrate natural history, and he had a lasting impact on his undergraduate and graduate students.

Prior to arriving at UC Berkeley, Johnson received his B.S. in biology in 1954 from the University of Nevada, Reno, after which he served in the U.S. Army in Germany for two years.

Because of Johnson's knowledge of birds, he was hired as an undergraduate to collect specimens and help curate the collection at the University of Nevada, Reno. Before receiving his PhD at UC Berkeley, he also worked as a graduate student at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and was a teaching assistant and associate in the Department of Zoology.

At the same time that he became a UC Berkeley faculty member, Johnson was hired as a curator of the museum's extensive ornithology collections.

From July 1967 to June 1968, Johnson was vice chairman of the Department of Zoology. On numerous brief occasions, beginning in July 1981, he was acting director of the museum.

His affiliation with the museum led him to do field work for his research in many parts of North America, as well as in countries including Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Trinidad.

"I'd die if I couldn't get in the field," Johnson said in his interview with "Living Bird." His camper, fixed as a mobile lab, allowed him to live among the birds while he was studying them.

His field work also occasionally allowed him to indulge in his other childhood passion, fly fishing.

Among Johnson's many honors and awards was the William Brewster Memorial Award, which he received in 1992 from the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), the largest professional ornithological society in North America. This award was given for his record of excellence in research and his influential publications.

Johnson joined the AOU in 1951, became an elective member in 1964, and was elected as a fellow in 1971.

In 2001, while recovering from cancer surgery, he received the Marion Jenkinson AOU Service Award for continued extensive service to the ornithologists' union. His service, which totaled 69 committee-years, included a term as president and 36 years as a member of the AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North American Birds. The committee is the leading authority on bird taxonomy and classification for North America.

Johnson also received in 1960 the A.B. Howell Award from the Cooper Ornithological Society, of which he also served as president.

In addition to professional ornithological societies, he was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was elected a fellow in 1997; American Society of Zoologists; American Society of Naturalists; Society for the Study of Evolution; and Society of Systematic Biologists. He also was a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and a permanent member of the International Ornithological Committee.

Johnson is survived by his partner, Carla Cicero, of Moraga; daughters, Heidi Ingrid Johnson of Berkeley, Rebecca Dawn Monson of Richmond, and Amy Bowman Johnson of Oakland; son, Alexander Konrad Johnson of South Korea; sisters, Xelva Eliza Flury of Reno, Catherine Ivaloo Fagg of Reno, and Norma Ruth Young of Henderson, Nev., and a brother, Virgil Kay Johnson of Fernley, Nev.

He also is survived by three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a son, Nathan Kirk Johnson, and a brother, Max Kirby Johnson.

A tribute to Ned K. Johnson's life is planned for fall 2003.

Contributions in his memory may be sent to the American Ornithologists' Union, to honor his lifelong passion for the scientific study of birds. The address is AOU c/o Nancy Johnson, BAI, 1313 Dolley Madison Blvd., Suite 402, McLean, Va., 22101.