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James (Jim) W. Wiley (2019)

Fern Davies

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Jim Wiley, a mainstay of Cuban ornithology, passed away on 19 September 2018. Apart from his scientific contributions, Jim was a gem of a man, exceedingly and unfailingly kind, gentle, and humble.


In 2010, the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology dedicated a volume to Jim. In the dedication, Herb Raffaele, Joe Wunderle, and Noel Snyder wrote:

(Note -  the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds is now BirdsCaribbean)

Were his only contribution the monumental bibliography on West Indian birds that he published in 2000 (Wiley 2000), Jim Wiley would rank among
the most important ornithologists to have ever focused their attention on birds of this region. But Jim’s contributions to the studies of Caribbean
birds, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing without diminishment today, have been so much more. We know of no ornithologist of the region
whose impacts have been more beneficial, going back to the first European explorers who mentioned birds in their natural histories. Therefore, it is with
profound respect and admiration that this issue of JCO is dedicated to a colleague whose detailed knowledge extends to more species than seems possible and whose many publications and other contributions could hardly be more impressive.

Normally such remarks are only possible for doddering ancient figures or for spirits who have already passed from the scene after lifetimes of devoted field work. Fortunately, Jim is still at the peak of his capacities, and it is reasonable to anticipate that much is yet to come, regardless of his recent official retirement from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Jim’s energy in pursuit of worthy goals has been legendary and sets a standard for diligence that we can only dimly comprehend. Perhaps it all goes back to the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, where Jim competed as a member of the

United States bicycle team and trained up to a level of fitness that he has maintained ever since. All three of us have at one time or another had the privilege of collaborating in field studies with Jim, and we are directly familiar with his tireless capacities. Even more, we have been amazed how he somehow always manages good humor and a spirit of selfless cooperation under even the most miserable field conditions. Jim’s skills range from scaling towering rain-forest trees to crossing treacherous streams (Fig. 1) and scuba diving, and we will never forget his tale of being nudged in the back by a curious Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) as he conducted field observations on marine Gobies along the California coast for his master’s degree. Fortunately for all of us, he survived this incident to finish his master's research at California State University in 1970 and to go on to many other studies.

From California, Jim moved on to graduate studies at the University of South Florida on Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), interrupted in 1973 by taking a position with the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources to study Plain Pigeons (Patagioenas inornata ), White-crowned Pigeons                 (P. leucocephala), and other columbids, a group for which he has always had a special affection. In 1977, he took over supervision of the Puerto Rican Parrot Project for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) after completing a detailed study of the Hispaniolan Parrot (Amazona ventralis) in the Dominican Republic for the US Forest Service. He remained in the Puerto Rican Parrot position until 1986, having overseen a steady and convincing increase of the wild population and having launched the captive breeding and release efforts that continue today. The success Jim and his wife Beth had with Puerto Rican Parrot conservation was outstanding, and included an informative experimental release effort of captive Hispaniolan Parrots to the wild in the Dominican Republic in 1982. Concurrent with their efforts with parrots, Jim and Beth also conducted diverse ecological and behavioral studies of the raptors of Puerto Rican and Hispaniola and ground-breaking studies of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius xanthomus ) in collaboration with Will Post, particularly with reference to the invasion of Puerto Rico by the Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis). It was Jim’s cowbird studies that led at last to finishing his Ph.D. with Bud Owre at the University of Miami in 1982.

In 1986 Jim was transferred back to California by the USFWS to conduct efforts for the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), a period when the very last wild condors were being trapped into captivity and when temporary experimental releases of surrogate Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) to  the wild were just beginning. This period also saw a profound change in Jim’s dietary habits that resulted, quite understandably, from his having to oversee the supplemental feeding program for condors.

For those who have long wondered about Jim’s antipathy to Big Macs and Whoppers, he was faced at one point with the clean-up of a defunct walk-in freezer filled with rotting mammal carcasses immersed in an incredible miasma of toxic gases. Fortunately, despite this brush with hell on earth, his enthusiasm for guanabana ice cream and other nutritious tropical delights has remained intact.

From California, Jim moved to Grambling State University in Louisiana in 1991, where he took charge of a cooperative wildlife unit for the USGS. At Grambling, he developed a special interest in the training of wildlife students from the West Indies, especially Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles, and a number of his former Grambling students are current members of the Society for Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB). There, he also had the good sense to keep all his local sightings of Bachman’s Warblers (Vermivora bachmanii) and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis)to himself.

As some indication of the importance of his mentoring contributions at Grambling, one of us (HR) recently was talking with an assistant to the Directorof the USFWS. This individual was a graduate from Grambling some 15 yr ago and spontaneously described how much he and the other grad students at the time appreciated and respected Jim’s dedication in assisting underprivileged students, particularly those from developing countries throughout the Caribbean. Jim’s ability to inspire others to careers in ornithology and conservation is one of his most important legacies.

In 2001, and continuing until his recent retirement, Jim took over supervision of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. There, he continued to be involved with diverse conservation and research projects in the West Indies, as well as local projects in the Chesapeake Bay region, carefully guiding an impressive number of students toward their graduate degrees.

Thus, despite being based in stateside locations from the late 1980s to the present, Jim’s first loyalties have always been in the Caribbean, with frequent trips to Cuba, the Cayman Islands and Hispaniola, and continued work with the psittacines of these islands, as well as many other bird species. He has been especially focused on aiding Cuban ornithological efforts in recent years, and was given special recognition for these efforts by Cuban ornithologists at the July 2001 meeting in Cuba of the SCSCB.

Jim was a founding member of the Society of Caribbean Ornithology (now the SCSCB) and played an important role in launching the organization. He was the first editor of El Pitirre , and during the nine years of his editorship he was responsible not only for editorial duties, but with help of his students served also as the publisher (aided by desktop publishing software) and distributor of the publication. im oversaw the evolution of El Pitirre from a newsletter, for which he often scrambled for manuscripts in the early years, to a journal format covering a broad range of topics. As editor, he was especially helpful and patient with inexperienced authors and viewed the journal as an important forum for their contributions. Other editing contributions he has made have included serving for many years as editor of publications for the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in California.

Jim’s personal list of scientific publications includes well over a hundred substantial papers, books, and monographs, mostly on West Indian birds. We find ourselves consulting his annotated A Bibliography of Ornithology in the West Indies (Wiley 2000) with frequency, and it is impossible to exaggerate the usefulness of this colossal assembly of more than 11,600 references, stretching back to the earliest ornithological writings for the region.

Among his other outstanding publications, we call special attention to his coauthorship of The Parrots of Luquillo: Natural History and Conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot  in 1987 (Snyder et al.1987), coauthorship of A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies  in 1998 (Raffaele et al.  1998), coauthorship of The Birds of Hispaniola  in 2003 (Keith et al.  2003), and his authorship and coauthorship of numerous shorter papers on the Shiny Cowbird, the Puerto Rican Parrot, the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, and various other psittacids, raptors, and columbids of the West Indies, not to mention his publications on such subjects as the effects of hurricanes on West Indian birds and techniques of captive breeding and reintroduction for endangered forms. For his overall contributions to field studies of Caribbean birds and to ornithology in general, the

SCSCB is truly indebted to Jim Wiley.


 KEITH , A. R., J. W. WILEY , S. C. LATTA , J. A. OTTENWALDER . 2003. The birds of Hispaniola.British Ornithologists’ Union Checklist 21:1-293..

RAFFAELE , H., J. WILEY , O. GARRIDO , A. KEITH , J. RAFFAELE . 1998. A guide to the birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

SNYDER , N. F. R., J.W. WILEY , C.B. KEPLER . 1987. The parrots of Luquillo: natural history and conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot. Western

Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Los Angeles.

WILEY , J. W. 2000. A Bibliography of ornithology in the West Indies.  Proceedings of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, vol. 7.


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In 2014, the Association of Field Ornithologists honored Jim with the Alexander F. Skutch Medal.

This year, the council and members of the AFO are honored to present the Skutch Medal for Excellence in Neotropical Ornithology to Dr. James W. Wiley. Dr. Wiley is recognized for his significant contributions to the scientific literature that have aided in the conservation of a wide range of imperiled Neotropical species in the Latin American-Caribbean region. He was one of the founding members of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB), and served as the editor of The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology between 1988 and 2004.

His research efforts have not only assisted in the recovery of endangered species and management of critical habitat, but have also provided benefits to the public. For example, Dr Wiley has co-authored numerous popular books including three seminal field guides, Birds of the West Indies, Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and The Birds of Hispaniola. These definitive field guides have not only provided pleasure for scientists and recreational birders alike, but have also significantly contributed to the understanding of ornithology in the region.

Throughout his career, Dr. Wiley’s extensive mentoring and teaching efforts have impacted a wide range of students and professionals, particularly those in the Latin American-Caribbean region. Dr. Wiley engaged students formally through supervision within Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unitsat Grambling University and at the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore, and informally in the field, through ornithological meetings, and personal communications. His dedication to mentoring and developing his students is legendary.

The Skutch Medal committee was chaired by Dr. Herb Raffaele, Chief, Division of International Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The committee consisted of Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director and former President of Birds Caribbean; Amiro Perez-Leroux, Director of Birdlife International for Latin America and the Caribbean; Bert Lenten, Deputy Secretary General of the Convention on Migratory Species; Richard Huber, Principal Environmental Specialist for the Department of Biological Protection and Management at the Organization of American States and Chair of Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative; Maria Rivera, Senior Advisor for the Americas in the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; and Nestor Herrera, Director of Wildlife and Ecosystems at El Salvador’s Environmental Ministry.




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A note from Eduardo Santana about Jim:

Jim  was my supervisor at the Puerto Rican parrot conservation project in the Luquillo Forest during the summer of 1978 and from 1979 to 1980. He also freely offered advice while I was doing my masters thesis fieldwork there on Redtailed-hawks from 1981 to 1983. Jim, along with Joe Hickey, Tim Moermond, Stan Temple, Lloyd Keith and Ariel Lugo, was one of my main professional role models, especially for his intense commitment to doing high-quality fieldwork and his knowledge and love for birds, and his love for the outdoors. As for how his worked helped, I share what my friend Eduardo Iñigo told me: “A significant indicator that Jim’s work was highly valued is that he was the first foreigner to receive the Gundlach recognition from the Cuban Zoological Society”. Since I came to work in conservation and teaching in western Mexico decades ago I unfortunately lost track of Jim (and most of my Caribbean ornithology colleagues!). But I have always remembered him and acknowledged that he was a good teacher to many and  “a  teacher affects eternity.” esantanacas@gmail.com   

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  • 8 months later...

I have been dreaming about Wiley for some nights now. Always with the feeling that my dear friend was no longer available for a letter or a talk about Cuban Raptors. It is with deep sadness that I see now that Jim is no more among us. I am profoundly touched by this news, and as Eduardo said, Cuba's ornithology own him an immense gratitude. 

Jim was my personal advisor in all the ornithological researches I did in Cuba. Since my first paper about the Cuban Kestrel until my last on the Cuban collection of birds in the museum of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The few we know about the Cuban raptors have the name of Jim Wiley attached. In a modest effort that took me 5 years and more that 30 trips to the areas where the Accipiter gundlachi was still present, a new subspecies was described in his name. The Accipiter gundlachi wileyi was clearly different from the nominative sp. Paraphrasing the Cuban poet Gertrudis Gómez d'Avellaneda when Gundlach dedicated to her a butterfly, I must say that Jim's name engraved on a cold stone of a grave will surely disappear with the time, but his name on the wings of the Gundlach Hawk will definitively last forever.

Carlos Wotzkow (gundlachi@hotmail.com)

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  • 1 year later...

I just got the terribly sad news about Jim’s passing away. I can’t quite believe it.

 It was 1983 and I had been working with John P. Taylor (USFWS Culebra Wildlife Refuge), fresh out of college, sponsored by the Culebra Conservation & Development Authority. When my appointment ended John suggested that I should write a letter to Jim about my interest in working at the Puerto Rican parrot captive facility. Jim didn’t have any budget to hire personnel at that time, so he got me in touch with José L. Vivaldi, who was the Chief of the Scientific Investigations Unit of the Terrestrial Resources Division of the Puerto Rico DNR. My appointment planted me right at the core of the Puerto Rican parrot captive breeding effort..it had been a childhood dream of mine. 

Living at the Aviary was an incredible experience, not only because of the importance of the task at hand, but because it allowed me to develop a meaningful level of respect towards Jim and the work he did. I emulated him in many ways...He was the real deal. I got to know Jim at a different level as well, the Cobra car enthusiast, road bike cyclists beast and Jazz music audiophile. 

In 1988 José L. Vivaldi called me in Virginia, were I was doing field archeological work for James Madison University, and offered me the project leadership  position for the second Puerto Rican parrot captive breeding facility in the Rio Abajo State Forest. There was a great deal of skepticism about the capabilities of the PRDNR to effectively and safely undertake the responsibilities of a second captive flock. My wife Anne Smith and I were hired by the PRDNR under a contract and we set off to get the facilities ready to receive the test flock of surrogate Hispaniola parrots. 

I had flown to L.A. to attend a meeting at UCLA, there I got to see Jim who invited me to stay at their home for a few days. One afternoon he had arranged a sort of interview with three well know field biology heavyweights. I understood their concerns about the State government’s potential for causing irreversible damage to the recovery effort. They were worried about me not going to be tough enough to handle the job and the bureaucracy. I believe that we (my team) proved our worth in the best way possible. 

A few years after the Puerto Rican parrot breeding successes in Rio Abajo, Jim came to the Aviary to stay with us...as the honest to Earth man he has always been, he apologized to us for not having had total confidence in our capabilities to run the captive breeding facility, that we had demonstrated other wise. That he was proud of our achievements. 

I was to meet Jim and Beth in Ocean City Maryland in 1993, I was there to attend the Ward World Wildfowl woodcarving competition as a competitor and they came to see my life-size Bald Eagle entry, however we somehow missed each other....he was very disappointed that Beth didn’t get to see me....that’s the last communication I had with him by email.


José Rodríguez-Vélez Rio Abajo Aviary(José L.Vivaldi) Project Leader 1988-1999




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