New professorship honors conservationist

  • Two honoreesBryan Watts (left) is the first holder of the Mitchell A. Byrd Research Professorship of Conservation Biology, created in honor of Mitchell Byrd (right), a legendary conservationist still active after half a century.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas.

    Two honorees
The College of William and Mary has established an endowed professorship in honor of a legendary bird conservationist who remains active even in retirement. The Mitchell A. Byrd Research Professorship of Conservation Biology is based in William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology. One of Byrd's former students, Center Director Bryan D. Watts, is the first holder of the Mitchell Byrd Professorship.

"This is a particularly fitting and gratifying recognition for the College to make," said P. Geoffrey Feiss, College provost. "It allows us to honor one of the seminal researchers in bird conservation in the Commonwealth at the same time as we designate, as the first recipient of the Mitchell Byrd professorship, a tireless and dedicated scientist who, working with Mitchell Byrd, has assumed his mantle of avian conservation biology in the Chesapeake region and performed remarkable work to the benefit of all Virginians.  Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts are role models, in the historic tradition of the College, of committed scientists who have done their research for the furtherance of the common good."

"William and Mary is known for bird work and that really comes from Mitchell Byrd," Watts said. "William and Mary didn't have any relationship to birds before Mitchell's time. He really built a national reputation for William and Mary in bird work that continues today."

Byrd is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Biology at the College of William & Mary. A member of the faculty since 1956, Byrd retired in 1994, but remains active. He works several days a week in his office in the Center for Conservation Biology, and also participates in field work, including low-altitude flights to conduct nesting surveys of bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

"I usually try to stop by the center every day, just to keep acquainted with what's going on," Byrd said. "I do a little bit of work on the peregrine falcon project, but essentially I go out on some of the things that are happening, but not on a really regular basis. It's not from a lack of interest, but the fact is that we have a lot of good young biologists here doing a lot of the field work."

Byrd has generated a two-part legacy. The first part is educational: He served as chairman of the College's biology department for 13 years during a time of rapid growth, directing its transition to a nationally recognized department with a broad-based curriculum.

Over the years, he instructed thousands of undergraduate students and advised over three dozen graduate students, including Watts, who began working with Byrd in a master's program in 1985. Watts noted that many of Byrd's students were inspired by his commitment to scholarship and his deep concern for each individual.  Dispersed across the nation, these students have made important contributions of their own.

The second part of Byrd's legacy is his contributions to the conservation field. He was instrumental in the repopulation of peregrine falcons east of the Mississippi and also is associated with the return of bald eagles to the East Coast. The national bird, once on the endangered species list, has made a comeback strong enough to be regular sights on the Chesapeake Bay and have recently been taken off the list of endangered species. He has also contributed to the knowledge of other species that are generally threatened, or rare in Virginia, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Byrd is frequently thought of as one of the pioneers of wildlife conservation in Virginia. His contributions to the management of threatened and endangered species have been synonymous with the history of conservation in the state.  In recognition of these conservation achievements, Byrd has received dozens of awards. His willingness to meet and speak with public groups throughout the region has resulted in a more informed public.

"It's hard to name too many professors in the history of Virginia who have educated more people who have gone on to careers in conservation," Watts said. Now, those people are scattered across the country in important positions, playing their role in the conservation movement. This professorship is important in terms of recognizing and acknowledging Mitchell and his contributions to the College and to the state."