Friday 21 March 2003
George Stuart Keith, ornithologist: born Clothall, Hertfordshire 4 September 1931; Research Associate, Ornithology Department, American Museum of Natural History 1958-2003; married 1975 Sallyann Burgess; died Truk, Caroline Islands 13 February 2003
Stuart Keith was perhaps the world's most successful bird-watcher. In the 1970s he even appeared in the Guinness Book of Records, having spotted more birds than anyone who had ever lived. He was the first to see over 4,000 different species, the birding equivalent of the four-minute mile, and by his death his "lifelist" of birds had increased to more than 6,500, or two-thirds of the world's species. He ticked a new bird, the Caroline Islands Ground-Dove (Gallicolumba kubaryi) just the day before he died, on a birdwatching expedition to Micronesia.
Keith's lifelong quest for birds was only one aspect of his passion for ornithology. He became an authority on African birds, and was principal editor of the massive Birds of Africa, a landmark work which took 22 years to complete; it brings together his unrivalled knowledge of the birds and their calls with a natural fluency of language and even a dry wit. He had just put the finishing touches to the seventh and last volume. He was also author with John Gooders of the well-known Collins Bird Guide (1980) on British and European birds.
English-born, and of Scottish ancestry, Keith spent most of his adult life in America, first in New York, later in California, where he helped to found the American Birding Association, becoming its first President in 1970. At its heart was Keith's idea for a body "focused entirely on birding for fun, partly for its own sake, partly as a subtle lure to get more people involved in conservation".
George Stuart Keith was born near Baldock in Hertfordshire in 1931, and educated at Marlborough College and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Classics. Before graduating, he served as a lieutenant in the King's Own Scottish Borderers in the Korean War, during which he managed to find time to go birding in Hong Kong. His intended career was in finance, but it was not long before he abandoned the fast life for the modest position of research associate in the Ornithological Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he could devote all his time to bird study. He eked out his income and paid for his travels by writing and lecturing, and with the benefit of a small legacy.
Keith's passion for birds began as a small boy after borrowing his sister's monocular to watch birds in his garden. His first bird-watching journeys were made to the Hebrides and to Holland, where he discovered a remarkable talent for tracking down elusive birds. One of his secrets was an uncanny memory for their calls. Later on, he took in a grand tour of the North American continent, when he saw more birds in a year than the previous record-holder, the ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson.
Between 1961 and 1965 Keith led field trips to Africa during which he recorded bird calls and songs of a large number of birds, some for the first time. A selection of them was produced by the American Museum of Natural History as audio-tapes and long- playing records. He also produced and narrated a feature-length film about African birds. In 1993 he was presented with the Linnaean Society of New York's Eisenmann Medal "for excellence in ornithology and encouragement of the amateur".
When not pursuing bird-related activities, Stuart Keith was a "determined" croquet player, a keen pianist, and an adept at word games. Apart from contributing learned papers about the Rallidae and the avifauna of Ugandan forests, he wrote light, humorous pieces about his experiences, and the people he met. While convalescing from heart surgery in 1991, he described a series of other brushes with death involving dangerous animals, volcanoes and, not least, his own erratic driving.
Despite worsening health, with heart trouble, arthritis and psoriasis piling up, he persisted in his world birding itinerary in the company of his wife, Sallyann, his brother Anthony, and various friends, to Kenya (1988), New Zealand (1990), Costa Rica (1993), Ghana (1997), Namibia and South Africa (1999) and Spain and Morocco (2002).
Keith had expressed the hope that, when his time was up, he would die during a birding trip. He had his wish. He succumbed to heart failure hours after snorkelling in the famous Blue Lagoon on the island of Truk.
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