Dr. John Terres: Bird Expert & Naturalist Still Making the H - 2005-08-01
Interviewer: Mark D. Kutner
Interviewee: John K. Terres
(Note: This interview with John Terres was made shortly before his death in 2006. The photo shows Mark Kutner and Dr. Terres.)
John Terres is known throughout our community as a highly intelligent gentleman with an unrivaled caring
disposition. Fortunately, as John approaches his 100th year, I am able to say that he has been able to
touch the lives of literally millions of people in countless communities through his work as a scientist,
author, and naturalist. To aptly discuss the life of John Terres requires that special attention be paid
to his remarkable career.
Included amongst the world’s foremost ornithologists, John has achieved notoriety for his accomplishments for nearly 70 years. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1905, John spent most of his childhood on a farm in New Jersey. In his youth John enjoyed fishing, hunting, and trapping, but admitted that “eventually I came to be against these activities,” leading him toward a life of
science and environmental protection. The author, co-author, and editor of over 50 books, countless scholarly articles, and winner of numerous awards including the highly prestigious John Burroughs Medal (1971), a list of John’s professional credits could exist as a stand-alone publication. Dr. Terres also served as the Editor of Audubon Magazine for 12 years (1948-1960). During that time, John was able to achieve national prominence as an advocate for wildlife conservation. While editor of Audubon in 1958, John actually managed to convince the management of the Empire State Building to turn off its massive beam of light between the months of September and November in order to protect migrating birds. Blinded by the light and unable to navigate around the skyscraper, this action prevented the deaths of thousands of birds, and is but one example of John’s ability to influence others to the benefit of animals. Dr. Terres also authored the monumental one-million-word Encyclopedia of North American Birds which took him approximately 21 years to complete. Considered a crowning achievement, in its first year of publication (1981), the Book of the Month Club sold some 65,000 copies
in the month of April alone! The encyclopedia remains in print and continues to be a major seller and important
Earlier this month, I came across yet another example of John’s continuing contribution to science in an
article regarding the existence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a species thought to extinct (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/). After some additional reading, I discovered that John had in fact identified an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker south of Homosassa Springs, Florida in 1955, but had kept it a secret for 30 years. Immediately intrigued by John’s 50 year old discovery and the motives behind his secrecy, with the publications in hand, I went to see John during his breakfast. I sat down with John and asked him if he had ever seen an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
John quickly replied, “Yes, but how did you know that?” I went on to inform him about recent articles related to the bird’s existence, to which he replied, “Well I’ll be. I saw a pair in Florida, in 1955, but I kept it a secret. They flew right over my car, and I recognized them by their size and coloration.” Having already known that he had kept his sighting a secret, I asked him about what kept him from telling the world. Characteristic of putting his love for nature above personal glory, John replied, “I didn’t want them to be captured and used as specimens. It was better that they be untouched in the wild where they belonged.” I then asked John about what he thought about all this publicity, to which he answered, “I find that the most amazing thing about all this is that I was able to keep a secret for 30 years!”
Because of the professionalism of John Terres and others like him (other experts have since reported observing the bird), the federal government is in the process of preserving the Ivory-Billed’s habitat in Arkansas, the location of the most recent sightings (CNN, May, 2, 2005). Needless to say, our community is thrilled to see that the work of Dr. John Terres continues to be acknowledged at the top-tier of the science community. We remain proud of both his local and global contribution to both academia and humanity!