The bird-filled world of Richard Prum

How an ornithologist discovered new kinds of color, proved T. rex had feathers, and answered the question “What is art?”

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Richard Prum, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, is profoundly interdisciplinary in his approach to his work. View full image

In the winter of 1999, Richard Prum sat his kids down on the couch and said: “Hey, I want you to remember that I told you something: T. rex had feathers.” His sons were seven, four, and two at the time, and “typical dino-fanatics.” They didn’t believe him. “They said, ‘No, no, Dad. T. rex didn’t have feathers.’ And I said, ‘It’s true. When you buy a T. rex toy for your kids, it’s going to have plumage.’”

Prum was a professor at the University of Kansas, and he had just come home after a visit to Yale to see some newly discovered dinosaur fossils. They were tyrannosaur relatives, little ground-running theropods, and their bodies were covered with silky fluff—“dinofuzz,” he calls it. Scientists had been arguing for decades about whether birds had descended from theropod dinosaurs or from some ancient reptilian lineage like Crocodilia. Two Yale paleontologists, John Ostrom and Jacques Gauthier, had championed the dinosaur origin, and the 125-million-year-old Chinese fossils on loan at the Peabody seemed to clinch it. But so far no one had come up with a theory of feather evolution to back up the claim that dinofuzz was primitive plumage. Prum had that theory. The paper he wrote has been, ever since, the prevailing scientific view of how feathers evolved.

Knowing only this piece of Prum’s work, one might assume he’s a specialist in theropod paleontology. But he’s not even a paleontologist. He is a consummate scholarly generalist. A dedicated, even fanatical, ornithologist who is now a professor at Yale, Prum takes his questions from birds and follows them wherever they lead. He began as a reasonably standard field biologist, but his own inclination for the new and unknown, as well as a freak medical crisis that deprived him of one of his most valuable field skills, made him change course. His intellectual peregrinations have led him to study, among many other things, color in birds and some mammals, the nature of sexual selection, and dinosaur coloration. He is currently involved in inventing a novel kind of blue paint. He is also developing a theory of art.

“I work on ornithology as if it were an interdisciplinary program,” says Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology. “Avian Area Studies, if you will”—like Southeast Asia Studies, American Studies, and the other geographic and cultural area studies that bring together scholars from many different disciplines. “Sometimes Avian Area Studies requires physics. Sometimes, it requires evolution. Sometimes, it’s about culture; and sometimes, it’s about game theory.” It’s “making connections between fields not formerly thought to be interrelated.”

When Ricky Prum was a child in Manchester, Vermont, in the early 1970s—this would be about 35 years before he’d win a MacArthur “genius” award—he occupied his mind by memorizing feats of gluttony listed in the Guinness World Records books: the largest number of whelks consumed in five minutes, that sort of thing. Then he got glasses.

“All of a sudden, the world was in focus,” recalls Prum, whose thick bifocals frame eyes like slate blue marbles. “My curiosity latched onto birds almost immediately.” Not long after, he discovered a bird guide at a bookstore. “I said to my mom, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ She said, ‘Oh yeah? Well, you’ve got a birthday coming up.” His tenth-birthday gift was the Golden Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Prum befriended elderly bird-watchers because they had cars and driver’s licenses, “and they were delightful,” he says. “I grew up with old ladies,” he says. “They were a tremendous community of friends.” Out and about with his binoculars, Prum found that the sound of a bird’s singing is often the first clue that it’s nearby, so he began memorizing birdsongs, hundreds of them, by listening to LPs from the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds. “I wore the grooves off those records. I became extraordinarily acoustic.”

Why birds? Prum attributes his choice in part to a similarity between his “style of mind” and that of birds. Whereas mammals tend to be nocturnal and tactile, and reptiles are furtive and must be grabbed to be studied, birds are mostly out in the daylight and are acoustic and visual (like Prum, with his birdsong repertoire and his revelatory eyeglasses). He also loves the chase. “The great thing about bird watching is that it’s a hunt. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s so primal.”

Prum went to Harvard and spent much of his time in its Museum of Comparative Zoology. “I smelled like mothballs for most of my undergraduate years,” he says. He had little patience for chemistry, physics, or math, and “ripped through my humanities courses as fast as I could. I was headed for South America to study birds.” When he began graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1984, he chose a group of neo-tropical birds, the manakin family, for a dissertation on courtship displays. Scientists knew very little about many of the 42 manakin species, and their songs had not been recorded. Prum hunted them down. He prepared by memorizing the known bird songs in each of his research areas—in Suriname, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Once there, he listened for songs he’d never heard. Eventually, Prum would construct a complete family tree showing the evolution of every species of manakin.

Four years into graduate school, he spent the summer in Senegal with his girlfriend, filmmaker Ann Johnson, watching birds and helping out on her documentary about the Atlantic slave trade. On one of his last mornings there, he got up from bed and fell on his face. The room was furiously spinning, and his right ear roared with tinnitus. When he got back home, the doctors suspected a virus; their formal diagnosis, Prum says, was “idiopathic sudden hearing loss, which means ‘We don’t know what the hell causes it.’” Even after treatment with steroids, his right ear never recovered the ability to hear anything above 1200 to 1500 Hertz. As Prum puts it, the ear is deaf to “practically anything that isn’t a crow or the bottom half of a robin.” But his left ear was unharmed, and still so keen that an audiologist called it “bionic.”

In 1987, he and Ann Johnson collaborated on a journal article on golden-winged manakins. They married three years later. Their careers have advanced in concert; once, when hiking in Australia, they met a fellow hiker who dropped to his knees in homage when he found out Ann had made the PBS documentary Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air. It’s a story Rick particularly likes to tell.