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Edwin O'Neill Willis

Fern Davies

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Edwin O'Neill Willis, known for his studies of Brazilian birds and antbirds, passed away on 11 April 2015. Born in Russellville, Alabama, Willis earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech in 1956, his master's in zoology from the University of Louisiana in 1958, and his Ph.D in zoology from the University of California Berkeley in 1964. He completed post-doctoral studies at the American Museum of Natural History in 1966. 



Willis took up residence in Brazil where he taught at Unicamp and married the ornithologist Yoshika Oniki . He wrote a book describing all the bird species of the State of São Paulo, which includes 84 color plates with scientific drawings of each bird made ​​by the artist Tomas Sigrist and released in 2003 by the Boundary Publisher, the city of Rio Claro , state of São Paulo . He also co-authored, along with his wife, the book Bibliography of Brazilian Birds : 1500-2002 (Publisher currency), with 530 pages that are related all the works published over five centuries of Brazilian birds. Willis's antbird (Cercomacroides laeta), also known as thelaeta antbird is named for himHe also studied the local extinctions of bird species at Barro Colorado Island in Panama. 

He retired in 2005 as professor at the Universidade Estadual Paulista Julio de Mesquita Filho.


He was a full life member of the American Ornithologists' Union, Cooper Ornithological Society, Raptor Research Foundation, Wilson Ornithological Society, and the Waterbird Society. He was elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1974.

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Comment submitted by Johan Ingels:


Edwin O’Neill WILLIS (°1935 - †2015)


In 1958, Edwin O. Willis obtained his MS degree in zoology at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (LA) with a thesis entitled “The foraging behaviour of ant-tanagers in British Honduras”.  And In 1964, he obtained his PhD at the University of California in Berkeley (CA) with a thesis entitled “The behaviour of Bicolored Antbirds”.


These studies would form the start of his successful career as a Neotropical ornithologist. And Edwin’s main interest would remain with forest birds, especially with ant-birds and ant-following birds.


In 1964, Edwin started his post-doctoral career at the American Museum of Natural History.  Thereafter he took up positions at successively the San Diego State College, the University of Washington, the Oberlin College,  the Princeton University, the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (São Paulo, Brazil) and the University of Miami.  Finally, in 1982 he returned to Brazil where he first became collaborating professor of zoology (1982–1986), later associate professor of zoology (1986–1994) and finally professor of zoology (1994–2005) at the Universidade Estadual Paulista in Rio Claro, São Paulo.  At this university, he has been a devoted member of the zoology department until his retirement.


Edwin travelled widely throughout the Americas to study Neotropical birds.  He started his career as a Neotropical ornithologist with a study of Habia ant-tanagers in British Honduras.  In 1960-1961, he studied for the first time birds following army ants on Barro Colorado Island in Panama.  The following years, he returned on a regular basis for a census of the birds of this island.  He also studied ant-following birds in Panama, in Trinidad, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and in the Belém and Manaus regions in Amazonian Brazil.  Once settled in Brazil, he also started to study birds in almost every state of his home country.


Especially his studies of birds following army ants asked to work in forests under though conditions for long periods.  Studying ant-following birds involved marking and following the birds during the day and following the ant swarms during the night. 


No surprise that the countless days that Edwin spent in the field resulted in an impressive list of publications in a wide array of ornithological journals.  He was interested in every aspect of a bird’s life history.  His early studies of the voice, courtship, foraging, nesting and territorial behaviour of Habia ant-tanagers published in The Auk and The Condor were outstanding.  Most of his studies of antbirds, e.g. Bicolored, Pale-faced, Spotted, Ocellated, Black-headed, Scale-backed and others, were published as monographs.  In his series of papers on the breeding records of the birds of Manaus in the Revista Brasileira de Biologia, and of the birds of Belém in Ciência e Cultura, we find a wealth of information on the nesting of many Amazonian forest birds.   And last but not least, there is that long series of papers on the behaviour of so many species, genera, groups or even families of birds as followers of army ants published in a variety of ornithological journals.


And his book ‘Bibliography of Brazilian Birds: 1500 – 2002’ published in 2002 is a lasting testimony to his importance for Brazilian ornithology.


Birds were not only the ‘subjects’ of Edwin’s studies, he simply enjoyed to see these most beautiful feathered creatures in their natural habitats !  When Edwin decided to settle in Brazil, his friend, the late Eugene Eisenmann, jokingly said: “Watch out birds of South America, your secrets will no longer remain secret… Ed Willis is arriving !”  And indeed, Edwin’s contribution to Neotropical ornithology has been monumental. 

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