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Russ Balda, 1930 - 2022


Ellen Paul
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Russell ("Russ") Balda, known widely for his studies of avian cognition and, in particular, avian memory, passed away on 16 May 2022 at the age of 82. Russ spent his entire career at Northern Arizona University, starting in 1966 and continuing to 2003,when he retired. 

Russ earned his Ph.D. in 1966 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in ecology and ornithology. 

He began his professional career by studying the ecology of seed-caching corvids, in particular the Clark’s Nutcracker and Pinyon Jay. Working with John Marzluff and others, his intensive study of a color-banded flock of Pinyon Jays led to the 1992 publication of The Pinyon Jay: Behavioral Ecology of a Colonial and Cooperative Corvid, co-authored by Marzluff. 

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His studies branched out into conservation questions, particularly the nest site limitation of cavity nesters. He and his students also launched a study of the Mexican Spotted Owl.

Over time, his fascination with the seed-caching-and-recovery behavior of corvids led to a pioneering cross-disciplinary study of the mechanisms of this behavior, working collaboratively with Alan Kamil, an experimental psychologist who had been studying Blue Jays. This work relied on studies of captive birds, enabling Balda and Kamil to document that the birds relied on precise spatial memory, rather than land-marking, to find the seeds they had cached. The work began with a single bird but grew to encompass numerous individuals of several species. The Woodhouse's scrub-Jays, Pinyon Jays, and Clark's Nutcrackers were housed in a large indoor-outdoor aviary. Individual birds were then removed to study rooms where they recoverd seeds they had cached in sand-filled cups, allowing Balda and Kamil to control for spacing or site preferences. Over time, the carefully designed experiments that challenged birds to find seeds they had cached  demonstrated that spatial cognition of related corvid species is correlated with differences in natural history and the degree to which species depend on stored food for winter survival and breeding.

Balda published nearly 50 papers demonstrating the capacity and longevity of corvid memory and linking differences in spatial and social memory to the ecology of Woodhouse’s (Western) Scrub-Jays, Pinyon Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers 

Russ was a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, a William Brewster Memorial Awardee from the American Ornithologist’s Union in 2004 with his long-time research partner Al Kamil. He was the 1998 recipient of the Cooper Ornithological Society’s Loye and Alden Miller Research Award, which is given in recognition of lifetime achievement in ornithological research.

Former student Aimee Sue Dunlap wrote of Russ, "Russ also cared about the animals we worked with. His deep respect for the care & well-being of the lab birds has deeply influenced how I worked with blue jays later in my PhD work, & how I care for our bees in the lab now. He set a high bar for everyone who worked in the lab."

 

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