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Bob Zink with birds.

Bob Zink looking at fox sparrows with graduate student Andy Jones.

On the top perch

Bird expert Robert Zink soared to the pinnacle of his profession with the American Ornithologists' Union's most coveted award

By Deane Morrison

Published on November 1, 2005

The study of birds may seem a rather sedate field, but only to people who've never met a whirlwind called Bob Zink. For the last decade and more, Zink has been stirring up the field of avian evolution, challenging long-held ideas and discovering hidden complexities in the genetic history of our feathered friends. This year Zink, who is curator of birds at the University's Bell Museum and a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, was recognized with the William Brewster Memorial Award, the top honor from the country's premier group of bird experts, the American Ornithologists' Union. The annual award recognizes "the most meritorious body of work on birds of the Western Hemisphere" published during the previous decade. It's been a long journey for Zink, who is now in mid-career. Raised in Minneapolis, he credits a sixth-grade teacher, Jack Gilbertson, with igniting his passion for "the wonder of bird diversity." As an undergraduate at the University, he encountered legendary ornithologist Walter Breckenridge and worked with Dwain Warner, another well-known bird expert. He went to Berkeley for his doctorate and in 1984 joined the faculty of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In 1993 he moved to Minnesota, where he now holds the Breckenridge Chair of Ornithology. Through it all he has had one overriding goal: to find out how birds evolved into the wealth of species we see today and to figure out how they are related.

"He's always the first one out of the car" when researchers arrive at a site, says Zink's former graduate student Shannon Hackett, now associate curator of birds at Chicago's Field Museum. "You don't want to get between Bob and the field any more than you want to get between Bob and his coffee."

His interest goes beyond the academic. Bird populations are being decimated by development, and knowing whether a threatened population is a genetically unique grouping or just more of a species that's abundant elsewhere is crucial if conservation efforts are to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible. But birds don't make the job easy. Sometimes, they disguise their true history by looking different when they're really alike. For example, ornithologists had regarded the California gnatcatcher as having two, genetically different subspecies, one living in Southern California and threatened by development, the other living in Baja California and plentiful. When Zink and three colleagues examined DNA from the two subspecies, they found that the birds in Southern California had recently dispersed northward from Baja California and were not genetically or evolutionarily distinct.

This result made Zink uncomfortable because it undermined the basis for conserving the California birds. He used this case to argue that the designation of "subspecies" must mean genetically distinguishable groups. Too often, he says, minor variations in color or feather length have led to groups of birds being classified as different subspecies when in reality they are not really different. What we've called subspecies are really just parts of a continuum, "just like the accents you hear going from Texas to Minnesota." Even birds that range from England to Japan can have no genetic differences, he says.

But other birds living in the same range can look alike even though they have evolved into different species.

"The European nuthatch is actually three species," says Zink, who is now studying Russian birds. "Lots of single 'species' turn out to be multiple species, with little consistency. We know a lot about how birds have evolved in North America, but we're just learning about those in the Old World."

In another contribution to his field, Zink examined the long-held idea that pairs of similar songbird species--such as eastern and western chickadees, eastern and western meadowlarks, and red-winged and tricolored blackbirds--evolved from common ancestors that had been separated by ice during the most recent glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago. Studying the DNA of 35 songbird species pairs, Zink and his graduate student John Klicka found that almost all had been evolving separately for up to 2 million years, long before the most recent glaciation. The researchers concluded that while glacial cycles may have been a factor in the diversification of North American songbirds, those events happened much earlier than many ornithologists had thought.

In discussing his work, Zink maintains a calm demeanor that belies the inner turbo engine that has no "off" switch. But outside the halls of academia, Zink's reserve evaporates. Or explodes.

"He's always the life of the party," says his former graduate student Shannon Hackett, now associate curator of birds at Chicago's Field Museum. "He has the quickest wit of anybody you'll ever meet." She describes Zink as a great adviser who makes sure his graduate students meet the right people and get the kind of experience they'll need to succeed in the world of ornithology. But he's also an extremely competitive type who relishes fieldwork above all else. He has traveled to such destinations Antarctica, Mexico and South America in pursuit of his passion.

"He's always the first one out of the car" when researchers arrive at a site, Hackett says. "You don't want to get between Bob and the field any more than you want to get between Bob and his coffee."

With one exception: When collecting birds with Zink in the wilderness, it is permissible to get between Zink and a snake. In fact, it's a required. Hackett says that when she and another graduate student were collecting birds in the California Sierras, Zink would not go near a bird on a pile of brush or anywhere else a rattlesnake might be lurking.

"He's afraid of snakes," she explains. "If he thought a rattlesnake was near where the bird was, another graduate student or I would have to retrieve it."