Dr. Robert L. Curry, PHD

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The 2015 Poole Award, for significant contributions to ornithology in Pennsylvania, goes to Dr. Robert L. Curry, PhD.

Dr. Curry is a Professor of Biology at Villanova University, where he has fostered the development of undergraduate and masters students since 1991. His areas of ornithological contribution are diverse, but include animal behavior, ecology, evolution, and conservation science. He is especially interested in avian mating systems, cooperative breeding, and the ecology of species that hybridize where their populations come into contact.

His academic pedigree is top-notch, earning a BS at Dartmouth and his PhD at the University of Michigan, in 1979, with a dissertation titled “Evolution and Ecology of Cooperative Breeding in Galapagos Mockingbirds (Nesomimus spp.).” Dr. Curry’s doctoral advisors included the famed Peter Grant, who with his wife Rosemary, conducted award-winning research on evolution, studying Darwin’s Finches. (Even the book written about their work was award-winning. Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of The Finch (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize, and Dr. Curry makes a cameo on page 102.)

After earning his PhD, Dr. Curry went on to study cooperative breeding in Florida Scrub-Jays, as a post-doctoral fellow at Archbold Biological Station (1998-90). Florida Scrub-Jays are a highly endangered species, and the population at Archbold is one of the most-studied and well-known systems in the world.

Dr. Curry’s longest-running project—and the one that matters most to our own backyard bird observations—explores the mechanisms at play in the contact zone between Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees. These two species can hybridize where they overlap, and simply identifying the species in the field can be a complicated matter. Indeed, Dr. Curry employs genetic tests to confirm not just the species, but also the individual paternity and maternity of the color-banded chickadees at his study sites. This project began back in 1997, and in his continuous effort he has amassed one of the longest and most complete databases of nesting ecology in American ornithology. Over time he has seen the hybrid zone shift north, an effect that relates to climate change. His recent publication, titled “Climate-mediated movement of an avian hybrid zone” was published in Current Biology in 2014, and subsequently picked up by the mainstream media, with articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times.

Beyond Pennsylvania, Dr. Curry also studies the ecology of Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, which live side-by-side in Nova Scotia, but which have never been known to hybridize. Dr. Curry is also an expert in island biogeography, and the conservation issues facing small, isolated populations of birds. His studies in these areas include Socorro Mockingbirds and Cozumel Thrashers in Mexico, White-breasted Thrashers on St. Lucia, and all of the Galapagos mockingbird species.

As you may have guessed, Dr. Curry wrote the chapters on Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees for the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Dr. Curry also authored the species accounts for Western Scrub-Jay and Island Scrub-Jay in the Birds of North America series, in addition to co-authoring the BNA account for Carolina Chickadee. In all, he has written over 45 peer-reviewed articles, published in a variety of scientific journals.

However, his published work should not overshadow his achievements as a teacher and a mentor. Dr. Curry goes the extra mile to take his Villanova students outside, observing the natural world with their own senses and thinking scientifically with their own brains. He takes his Intro Ecology classes on mandatory overnight camping field trips to places like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Elk Neck in Maryland, and Cape May, New Jersey. This effort is increasingly important, as it becomes more and more common for college students to never have spent a single night camping in their lives …until Dr. Curry delivers one of the most unexpected and singular experiences of their college careers. His Field Ecology & Evolution class takes a two-week expedition to places such as the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, the scrublands of central Florida, or the islands of Nova Scotia. It’s no easy feat to take a bunch of college students abroad and bring them back in one piece!

Among the student body, he is regarded as one of the most demanding professors in the Biology Department. It’s true, he expects more than most professors and he pushes his students to write better and deliver more effective presentations. One consequence of his demand for excellence is that Curry’s students win a disproportionate number of student presentation awards at meetings. Speaking from experience, there are few things about which Dr. Curry is a stickler: 1.) The word “data” is plural. 2.) Approximately 1 in 12 men are color-blind and he is one of them, so you should never use red-green or red-blue color schemes in presentations and 3.) Charles Darwin was NOT inspired by Darwin’s Finches. He didn’t even notice them and he certainly didn’t name them after himself. It was the Galapagos mockingbirds that caught his eye and inspired the man who changed the world.

His favorite quote, as any of his students will tell you (because it appears at the bottom of each of his emails) is, “My attention was first thoroughly aroused by comparing together the various specimens … of the mocking-thrush” ~ C. Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Among American ornithologists, Dr. Curry is a leader. He is an active member of ten professional societies, current president of the Wilson Ornithological Society, and serves as Chair of the Ornithological Council, the consortium of twelve North and Central American professional ornithological societies.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Dr. Curry is also a technophile. Beyond the fact that he creates his own websites and is the webmaster for a few ornithological societies, he also compels his students to truly learn the ins and outs of the software they use in his classes and beyond. If he can learn to use new software for managing libraries of scientific literature and properly-formatting citations in Microsoft Word documents, he expects his students to learn it too. He is an aficionado of GIS and relational databases, and he convinced the Biology Department to supply him with an entire computer lab of Apple iMac’s long before they were again considered “cool” by the students.

Dr. Curry brings his entire career of research experience into the classroom to make the Galapagos Islands, Peter and Rosemary Grant, and even Charles Darwin feel not so far away. He is generous with his students, both as a teacher, and as a mentor. He is extremely active in ornithological societies, and in turn does all that he can to help his students connect with and participate in the community of academic ornithology. Not only does he urge and guide his students to apply for student travel awards to attend the scientific conferences, but he also comes through with free road trips cross-country in the Biology Department’s 12-passenger van. (And plenty of birding along the way!)

It’s difficult to summarize an entire career of achievement, but perhaps the title of his 2005 paper best encapsulates his ornithological philosophy and the reason why Dr. Robert L. Curry is a treasure for Pennsylvania ornithology: “Hybridization in Chickadees: much to learn from familiar birds.”