Russell Greenberg: Pioneering Ornithologist

November 4, 2013 by Steve Monfort


Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan

All of us at the National Zoo are deeply saddened by the passing of Russell Greenberg, a pioneering ornithologist and founder of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Russ was a treasured friend, mentor and colleague to so many of us. He was a visionary who was among the first to recognize a precipitous decline in Neotropical migratory bird populations, and an innovator who invented the concept of “shade-grown” coffee as a bird-friendly product, and for developing the rigorous science-based criteria now used in Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee.

Russ displayed a precocious affinity to birds. He started his “life list” of bird sightings at age eight and maintained a passion for ornithology throughout his youth, hitchhiking around the Golden State in search of birds and earning a Bachelor’s degree and PhD in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley. All of us knew Russ as an intellectual powerhouse, but also recognized his exceedingly dry humor and flawless deadpan. Colleagues still talk about the color slide he liked to use in his talks—supposedly an aerial view of lowland tropical forest, but actually a photo of the broccoli display he took at the Berkeley Bowl supermarket.

Eschewing the charismatic species that attract so many birders, Russ dedicated most of his career to studies of nature’s more subtly colored fliers in lowland tropical forests and wetlands including wintering warblers, vireos, antwrens, swamp sparrows and rusty blackbirds. From observations of these under-appreciated species he derived a number of groundbreaking insights into avian behavior, evolution, and ecology. His most recent work brought ecological and evolutionary evidence to bear on an emerging and surprising recognition that, beyond their obvious utility for nabbing insects and hulling seeds, bird beaks serve an important role in the regulation of avian body temperature.

Russ was a strong advocate for science education and for inspiring the public about the wonders the great phenomenon of bird migration. He founded Migratory Bird Day, a festival to celebrate the arrival of migratory songbirds back to their northern breeding areas, now celebrated at 700 venues throughout the Western hemisphere. And Russ had a vision for making the Zoo’s Bird House the public “store front” highlighting the science and marvels of bird migrations. As we move forward with Bird House renovations in the years to come, “Marvelous Migrations” will help to ensure Russ’s legacy by bringing the ornithological sciences to millions of guests each year.

Russ was passionate about graduate and post graduate training, and he served as a mentor or advisor to more than 70 postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and research interns. To honor him and to ensure his important work continues, we are establishing the "Russ Greenberg Fellowship Fund" at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to support graduate and post graduate training. If you wish to contribute, please contact Lesli Creedon at 202-633-3022 /

Our hearts go out to Russ's family and friends at this difficult time, especially to his wife and early scientific collaborator, Judy Gradwohl, and to their children, Natalie and Jeremy.