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Monica Turner, 1925 - 2013

Melanie Colón

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Monica Turner, who has died aged 88, was the first woman to acquire a doctorate in ornithology in Britain. She joined the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Oxford, in 1948, to undertake research into the feeding habits of blue and great tits, thought then to be potentially valuable in controlling the caterpillars that were reducing timber production.

She was an early field ecologist and one of the few women operating in a male-dominated world. The study involved dawn to dusk observations. Her thesis, The Availability of Food and Predation by the Genus Parus (1952), was based on studies in oak woodland, in Wytham Woods, to the west of Oxford, and the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. It showed, among other things, that the birds took an insignificant proportion of the caterpillar populations. She then did postdoctoral studies, together with John Gibb, on the tits and their prey in the Breckland pinewoods of the east of England.

When I joined the institute in 1957, Monica was back in Wytham Woods. These more detailed studies necessitated that the caterpillars be identified to species. However, the birds move so fast that this was often impossible. Monica placed her hides right against the nesting boxes so that she could look directly inside. She designed an artificial nestling on the end of a pair of forceps whose mouth could be opened and closed by the observer. When the parent bird came in to the box it would "feed" the fake bird, allowing Monica to withdraw the forceps and identify the prey. These studies paved the way for detailed investigations of animal foraging by numerous researchers over the next 40 years.

The youngest of four children, she was born Monica Betts in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and gained her love of the countryside and of birds at an early age. She chose to read zoology at University College London partly because the department had been evacuated to Bangor, on the doorstep of Snowdonia, although she completed her undergraduate studies back in London and gained a first-class degree, before joining the Edward Grey Institute.

Monica married Geoffrey Turner in 1957, and they lived in Cumnor, near Oxford. She served on Cumnor parish council for 20 years and was a most effective supporter of village life. She also bred Norwich terriers, buying her first puppy in 1953.

Geoffrey died in 1984. Monica is survived by their son, Jonathan, daughter, Jessica, and grandchildren, Siân and Llinos.

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