Janet Kear

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ornithologist
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The Independent Online

Janet Kear was one of the most inspirational ornithologists of her generation. In 1959, she was recruited by Peter Scott to join the Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust or WWT) where her first husband, Geoffrey Matthews, was assistant research director. She enjoyed a remarkably fruitful and happy relationship with WWT that lasted all her working life.

Janet Kear, ornithologist: born London 13 January 1933; Research Scientist, Wildfowl Trust (later Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) 1959-74, Principal Scientific Officer 1974, Avicultural Co-ordinator 1974-77, Curator, Martin Mere Centre 1977-90, Assistant Director 1978-90, Director of Centres 1991-93, Trustee 2000-04; Secretary, Association for Animal Behaviour 1966-73; Chairman, Endangered Waterfowl Group, International Union for Conservation of Nature 1976-87; Fellow, Zoological Department, Liverpool University 1978-92; President, British Ornithologists' Union 1990-945; OBE 1993; married 1963 Geoffrey Matthews (marriage dissolved 1977), 1993 John Turner; died South Molton, Devon 24 November 2004.

Janet Kear was one of the most inspirational ornithologists of her generation. In 1959, she was recruited by Peter Scott to join the Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust or WWT) where her first husband, Geoffrey Matthews, was assistant research director. She enjoyed a remarkably fruitful and happy relationship with WWT that lasted all her working life.

She variously acted as the trust's Principal Scientific Officer, Avicultural Co-ordinator, curator of the Martin Mere reserve in Lancashire (where she met her dearly loved second husband, John Turner, himself a seasoned bird ringer), Assistant Director of the trust, and Director of its centres.

During her career she influenced many young people who subsequently have risen to the top in ornithology and conservation. As her work became known, her services were in demand outside the trust. She herself felt that her greatest contribution to the world outside WWT was to the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU), the oldest ornithological organisation in the English-speaking world. The BOU now represents the interests of professional ornithologists while still retaining a co-ordinating role in general ornithology as custodian of the British List, the ultimate court that decides the authenticity of bird records in the United Kingdom.

From 1980 to 1988, she was editor of Ibis, published by the BOU and one of the world's foremost academic ornithological journals. It was a difficult period that coincided with the withdrawal of support services previously freely given by the universities. Because of Kear's superbly directed hard work and common sense, Ibis emerged stronger at the end of her period as editor. She was the BOU's Vice-President from 1988 until 1990 and its President from 1990 until 1994. That Janet Kear was the first woman president of the BOU seems irrelevant, although during her term of office she had to deal with many difficult, masculine personalities.

Other councils on which Kear served included the Council for the Study of Animal Behaviour, the Avicultural Society, the British Trust for Ornithology, the RSPB, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and English Nature, the latter for a rare three terms. Between 1982 and 1998 she served on the committee of the International Ornithological Congress and was the vice-president for its 1998 meeting in Durban. At the time of her death she was a serving Trustee of WWT and the National Museums Liverpool. In 1993, she was appointed OBE.

It might be assumed that such a busy working life would have precluded any publication other than routine reports. Far from it: in her lifetime she published five books and co-authored two others. Of these, Man and Wildfowl (1990), a superb account of the interaction from medieval times of humans with ducks, geese and swans, is the book that will be remembered. She also published over 90 scientific papers.

A sixth book was in press when she died. Ducks, Geese and Swans, scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in spring 2005 will be her lasting memorial. Thanks to the efforts of OUP, final bound proofs were in her hands on her last day.

Janet Kear was a marvellous communicator. Those who heard it will not forget her lecture on the use of duck decoys, a device imported from Holland in the 17th century whereby ducks were driven into net traps by dogs. Her last paper was to have been given to a joint meeting of the BOU and the Linnean Society in early November. Appropriately, its subject was the wildfowl of New Zealand. Before her illness, Janet and John had contemplated moving to New Zealand, where her brother lived.

Another project on which Janet Kear had been working for many years was a life of St Werburgh, a seventh-century Mercian princess. Like Kear, St Werburgh had an affinity with geese and in Chester Cathedral there is a window dedicated to her in which she is portrayed "preaching" to them. To Kear's amusement the species of goose being addressed is the Canada Goose, a species that did not reach England until the 17th century.

Born in 1933, Janet Kear was educated at Walthamstow Hall in Sevenoaks, Kent, at Caspar Junior College in Wyoming and King's College London. Her postgraduate work was done at Girton College, Cambridge, under the supervision of R.A. Hinde and her PhD on the feeding of finches was awarded in 1959, the year that she joined the Wildfowl Trust.

When I knew her, Janet was a happy and gregarious person who made friends easily; but her childhood had been far from happy. Her mother died when she was a year old and she was brought up by an elder sister and by a succession of other less permanent members of the household. Her move to America as a teenager was driven by a need to escape from Sevenoaks.

She once told me that Wyoming had instilled in her a love of open spaces. I now realise she was being partly ironic. At any rate, she chose to return to England from the United States and we were all enriched by this decision.

Christopher Helm



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