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Janet Grout Williams '60 may find it difficult to avoid the subject of the career from which she recently, retired, particularly while hiking through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She left her position as a professor of field research biology at Swarthmore College in June and migrated north, marking the end of her noted career as an ornithologist.
Williams's research in animal behavior began when she worked with the world-famous zoologist Dr. Donald Griffin, who coined the term "echolocation" to describe his discovery in the 1940s of ultrasonic navigation among bats. Williams's husband, Timothy, was studying under Griffin for his Ph.D. when Griffin offered her a position as a research assistant. The WIlliamses traveled frequently, including a stay in Trinidad to carry out a detailed study of bat behavor. It was there that the Williamses discovered that sight had a greater role in navigation than many biologists realized. Bats, they found, rely on visual landmarks in addition to scholocation with reflected sound waves.
After their research on bats, Janet and her husband maintained a laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and became interested in studying mass oceanic bird migrations. They had watched 12 million birds bound for the Southeast leave Cape Cod in a single night. The WIlliamses wondered where the huge flocks were going and how they got there. In 1969 the pair began what would result in a 30-year study of mass migrations. They found that while some birds fly over land, others, such as certain species of warblers and sandpipers, traverse a 2,000 mile stretch of the Atlantic Ocean to reach their destinations in South America and the Caribbean.
The WIlliamses examined data from ship and coastal radar systems to learn the speed of the birds, how hight they fly, which routes are taken and which birds are most successful at completeing the lengthy flights. Results from the ongoing study were first published in the October 1978 issue of Scientific American. The article shared some of their interesting findings on how birds make the difficult journey. "The trip... require[s] a degree of exertion that is not matched by any other vertebrate," the article stated. "For a man the metabolic equivalent would be to run four minute miles for 80 hours."
Williams's interest in biology began at an early age, though she was not always certain fo the direction she wished to take. "I've always been interested in nature since i was a little girl," she said. "I was an outdoors person, and that was part of why I chose Colby." Enjoying her membership in the Outing Club and Colby's location in central Maine, Williams was also thankful for the support and personal interest shown by the Colby community in what began as a difficult first year of college. Her mother had died just weeks before she left home for Mayflower Hill. These tragic curcumstances "forced me to be independent and self-assured," she says. With the help of the supportive environment at Colby, Williams said, "I was able to become a mature, independent person with a liberal arts background. I could strike out on any path."
She chose ornithology, and although Williams has retired from academia it will not mean the end of her passion for nature and travel. "I will continue to be a naturalist," she said, and she plans to become actively involved in the Appalachian Mountain Club after taking up residence in the New Hampshire mountains. Williams also will be occupied with finishing a book about herself and her husbandča reflection on the careers of two field ornithologists.
-- Gavin O'Brien '04
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