EUGENE SILLER MORTON

Photo of Gene Morton


Gene was born on November 25, 1940, near Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland and was horrified as the fields and forests he happily wandered through were destroyed by “development.” An early interest in raising butterflies turned into identifying natural sounds and birds by elementary school age. He received a BS degree in biology from Denison University and a PhD degree from Yale in evolutionary biology following short stints at the University of the Pacific and Cornell University. At Cornell, he was associated with the Library of Natural Sounds and was called upon to travel to Panama to identify natural sounds under a General Electric Company contract with the U.S. Army. This began a lifelong tropical research career, beginning with pre- and postdoctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute studying the acoustics of habitats and later migratory bird behavioral ecology, frugivory, and breeding systems in tropical birds.

After a final postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, Gene began his professional career as an animal behaviorist at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1972. He moved to the Department of Zoological Research at the National Zoological Park in 1974 while remaining an adjunct at the University of Maryland. During this decade, Gene published on avian communication, frugivory, and migratory birds and also on Odonata of Panama. He organized a conference on migratory birds in 1978 and co-edited the proceedings, Migrant Birds in the Neotropics, with Alan Keast through the Smithsonian Press. Other books include Lords of the Air: the Smithsonian Book of Birds (1990), with Jake Page; Animal Talk: Science and the Voices of Nature (1993), also with Jake Page; and Animal Vocal Communication: a New Approach (1998) with D. H. Owings. In 2001, he published a book, entitled The Behavioral Ecology of Neotropical Birds, which he coauthored with Bridget Stutchbury.

In 1995, Gene was recognized for his avian research by the American Ornithologists’ Union by receiving its Brewster Award for outstanding research in the last 10 years. He was one of the first to use DNA fingerprinting to determine the evolutionary origins of colonial breeding in the purple martin, and has continued to test the idea that temperate zone birds have high rates of extra-pair behavior due to high breeding synchrony induced by the short breeding season there and, therefore, afford rather atypical models of avian biology.

The demise of Gene’s youthful environment has led to active deterrence of over development whenever possible. He was awarded the conservationist of the year award by the Severn River Association for his efforts to save marshes along that waterway. He continues his graduate school interest in curbing human population growth as the most important endeavor of the 21st Century. He served on the boards of the Severn River Land Trust and the Maryland Chapter of The Nature Conservancy until moving to the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, in 1996.

Gene and Bridget were married in 1995 and they have two children, Douglas who is 10, and Sarah who is 8. Gene retired from the Smithsonian in 2005 and now operates the Hemlock Hill Field Station in Pennsylvania and is an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, where Bridget is a professor.

Gene was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1980. He served as chair of the membership committee and was on the governing board. His research on the decline of the Kentucky warbler in the Potomac Valley was supported by a grant from the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1982.