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Ruth Beck RIP 2015

Fern Davies

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Ruth Ann Beck, a long-time member of the Waterbird Society, died the morning of Thursday, May 7, 2015. She was especially supportive of the student members.  She worked on population dynamics of wading birds and seabirds (terns, herons, gulls and

skimmers), biological monitoring of colonial waterbirds, behavior and population dynamics of Colonial and Solitary Beach Nesting Waterbirds, and biology of endangered and threatened species  (Piping Plover, Least Tern and Red-cockaded Woodpecker). Ruth was a longtime educator in the state of Virginia. She began her teaching career at Longwood College and then joined the faculty of the Biology Department at the College of William & Mary in 1969. She was a graduate of Radford College and obtained a master's degree from UVA in 1966. She was a committed researcher in the field of ornithology and a leader in efforts to understand waterbird population dynamics in the Chesapeake Bay region. She was the author/co-author of over 30 research articles and book chapters. In 1980, she earned her private pilot's license to expand her research capabilities. In 1991, the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded her the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanders Award for Public Service. That same year, the Governor of Virginia awarded her a certificate of recognition for her wildlife conservation efforts. She contributed to eight television documentaries on avian wildlife and in addition, her Siamese cat became the star of a memorable National Geographic program, "The Secret Life of Cats." For nearly four decades, Ruth was a highly visible presence in the Department of Biology at William & Mary, where some 32,000 students have passed through her introductory laboratory classes. Her enthusiasm and talents brought the natural world of microorganisms, plants, animals and especially birds to life. She had been a dedicated mentor (and friend) to literally hundreds of individual students. She was predeceased by her parents, Lillian Mary Androvich and Michael Paul Androvich of Highland Springs, Va. She is survived by her husband, Sherwin Beck; her son, Michael Beck; her daughter-in-law, Ann Drewing Beck; her grandson, Aiden Beck; and a large, extended family in Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Dan Cristol at William & Mary wrote this lovely memorial for Ruth for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory:



 A TRIBUTE TO  Ruth Beck

Ruth was the Observatory’s Vice-President and Songbird Team Leader.

The Observatory will be establishing a Special Fund in her honor.

This tribute is written by her College of William and Mary colleague and friend Dan Cristol, of the Biology Department.



The birds have lost a great friend. It is spring and life is in the air. Eastern Bluebirds are fledging their first broods and wildly attacking any squirrel or snake that comes close, Brown Thrashers are franticly gathering insects from the driveway for their newly hatched chicks, and twittering hordes of Barn Swallows are scrambling to gather mud for their nests in every puddle. Sadly, though, Ruth Beck, Emeritus Professor of biology at William & Mary, passed away suddenly May 7th at age 72. 


Ruth helped birds at many levels, starting with the superb bird feeders at the lakeside home which she shared with husband Sherwin. Her feeder spread was so alluring it drew in species rarely fond of birdseed, especially Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Ruth worked right up to the time of her death documenting and managing the nesting success of our dwindling colonial waterbirds, most notably the Least Terns of Craney Island in Portsmouth and Grandview Beach in Hampton, and the huge tern and gull colony dependent on the rocks of the Hampton Roads bridge-tunnel. 


These human-created habitats have become important refuges for birds being displaced from our Barrier Islands as rising sea levels slowly drown out their natural nesting colonies. The owners of these properties have reason to resent the descending hordes of waterbirds, which create transportation hazards and require workers to accommodate in all sorts of ways. But for decades Ruth has been able to graciously negotiate fair treatment for the birds, and to enlist an army of dedicated volunteers and students to manage their habitats. I have worked alongside retired school teachers, conscripted college students and members of a prison work detail to ensure that the picky Black Skimmers had the proper surface of weed-free, flat sand for their nests.


Ruth, who started at William & Mary in 1969, developed, taught and supervised biology laboratories for tens of thousands of college students. These were the first intensive lab experiences for freshmen, and were often formative. She inspired countless undergraduates to go on to take courses in ornithology and to pursue birds as a hobby or profession. Ruth also hired scores of students to assist in her summer research with tern and gull nesting colonies, and turned many apathetic field hands into aspiring scientists. To the end she carried out weekly surveys of Craney Island, one of Tidewater’s most exciting birding destinations, with a crew of volunteer local birders. Like a reporter who gets to every crime scene first, Ruth’s group broke the story on many local rarities, including last year’s Snowy Owl, and many, many more. 


Besides inspiring countless future scientists, birders and conservationists, and spearheading important local research and land management projects, Ruth was also a stalwart contributor to what is known as citizen science. Citizen science is the enlisting of non-professionals to gather data for scientific research, and for more than forty years Ruth and a crew of birders has been monitoring the bird populations of Williamsburg as part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Never satisfied to stick to her own territory, the college campus and surrounding forests, I would often catch Ruth sneaking on to my adjacent territory to make sure that I was counting things accurately. I forgave her readily, because I never missed a chance to sneak on to campus to count the Rusty Blackbird flock, just in case Ruth had missed a few.


Ruth may be best remembered locally as one of the founders, longtime presidents, and benefactors of the Williamsburg Bird Club. My current fondness for the bird club is directly the result of Ruth having engaged me in various roles soon after I arrived on campus. At a time when I should have been focused solely on my duties at the College, I developed a lasting relationship with this thriving civic group. Under Ruth’s direction, the club has for decades raised money to provide research grants to William & Mary graduate and undergraduate students undertaking bird research, as well as providing scholarships for kids to attend Nature Camp, purchasing books for the library, and sustaining educated interest in birds. With generosity, humor and intelligence, Ruth Beck left the world a better place than she found it, and inspired many others to do the same. When generosity, humor and intelligence were not enough, she would turn to the most potent of her charms, extravagant spreads of food, always including strawberries. And like the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings, people were drawn to Ruth Beck’s strawberries. Ruth, we miss you already.

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  • 5 years later...

Ruth really helped me in my data-gathering of blood from least terns throughout the United States. I was able to show, by sampling blood from populations in California, the Mississippi River, Massachusetts, Maine, and at Ruth's colonies in Virginia, that there was gene flow among these disparate populations.

I recall accompanying her one island colony, with my 8 year old daughter Hanna, and finding that dogs had gotten onto the colony since Ruth's last visit, and there were only two chicks left. We did not take any blood from them, but Ruth had banded them earlier, so she was still following them when we departed. And she related to me after I left the dates they had fledged, and she also said that she had named them after my daughters,  Hanna and Emma (my 3 year old who couldn't make it that trip). She was a good scientist and a very warm human being, and that is sometimes a rare combination.

I still miss her.

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  • 1 year later...

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