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Virginia Society of Ornithology honors Byrd, Cristol

  • Honored scientists:Mitchell Byrd (left) is the namesake of the Virginia Society of Ornithology new award. Dan Cristol (right) is the first recipient of the Mitchell A. Byrd Award for Scientific Achievement.

    Photo by Shirley Devan

    Honored scientists:

William & Mary bird scientists Mitchell A. Byrd and Dan Cristol were each honored for their contributions to ornithology by the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO).

Cristol, professor of biology, is the first recipient of the new VSO honor, the Mitchell A. Byrd Award for Scientific Achievement. Byrd is an emeritus professor of biology at the College.

“Neither of us knew the award existed, or that I was going to get it,” Cristol explained. “It was a big surprise.”

A VSO press release notes that the creation of the award recognizes the significant contributions Byrd has made—and continues to make—to ornithology.

“Dr. Byrd’s scientific research has had a profound impact on Virginia’s birds, being key to the recovery of the eastern population of the peregrine falcon and the Chesapeake Bay bald eagle population,” said Andrew Dolby, president-elect of the VSO.

Cristol is best known for his research with mercury contamination in the Shenandoah Valley. Working with this large-scale project for almost seven years, Cristol studies the effects of mercury in the river on the local bird populations.

“Every kind of bird is affected, but in some ways they seem fairly able to handle high levels of mercury,” Cristol explained. “So there’s still a lot of them out there doing their thing. We’re studying what the subtle effects are on their health.”

Cristol’s research involves many faculty and students at William & Mary who look at the different ways in which mercury affects the bird population along the river and throughout the valley. “They all work with us on campus on determining the effects of the mercury on the different tissues and behavior and immune system.” Cristol said. “It’s a collaborative effort, involving a lot of students.”

Dolby noted that Cristol was selected to receive the award for a variety of reasons. He cited the fact that Cristol established his scientific career in ornithology at a young age in comparison to other ornithologists. Dolby also noted that Cristol’s mercury toxin research provides significant information that will benefit Virginia birds. He also maintains a productive relationship with the VSO. Dolby also commended Cristol for the way he mixed research and his teaching career.

“I am impressed by the combination of his research record and quality as a teacher,” he said. “Dr. Cristol provides high quality education about birds for students and citizens at all levels."

The VSO award isn’t the first to bear Byrd’s name. The Mitchell A. Byrd Research Professorship of Conservation Biology was named for Byrd. Bryan D. Watts, director of the Center for Conservative Biology, is the first holder of the professorship. Byrd taught for over 50 years at William & Mary, serving not only as chair of the biology department for 13 years, but also as Chancellor Professor of Biology for a number of years.