Summer 2011

“There are maybe two handfuls of people in the world with the knowledge Brad possessed.” 
–Steve Rogers, collection manager, section of birds 

Remembering Brad

A giant in his field of ornithology, Brad Livezey was one of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s star scientists and quirkiest characters.  

By John Altdorfer

Brad Livezey (left) and his brother, Kent, during their trip to Ecuador.

Sometimes, Steve Rogers still refers to Brad Livezey in the present tense. It’s a common moment of pause for those who were closest to the late curator of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s section of birds. Whether they’re colleagues, collaborators, or kin, everyone seems to expect Livezey to call at any moment and launch another of his marathon discussions about birds, religion, politics, or his nearly inexplicable delight in the Austin Powers 1960s spy movie spoofs.

Livezey died this past February when his car crashed on an icy road near his home in a northern suburb of Pittsburgh. He was just 56. The normally talkative Rogers, who as the section’s collection manager worked with Livezey for 18 years, takes a moment on the other end of the line, adding, “It’s a lot quieter around here now.”

A world-renowned ornithologist, Livezey established his reputation with an unmatched body of work that examined the skeletal structure of birds and their relationships to living things both present and past. One important area of study: the link between the winged creatures of today and dinosaurs from millions of years ago.

Before joining the museum in 1993, he earned master’s degrees in wildlife ecology and mathematics, along with a doctorate for his thesis on the evolution of flightless steamer ducks. Among the scores of papers he published, the hallmark of Livezey’s research was his unstinting attention to understanding subjects literally from the inside out.

His lifelong love and pursuit of birds took flight at an early age, when Livezey and his brother, Kent, led neighborhood avian spotting expeditions.

“I would go birding with friends,” says Kent, a wildlife biologist in Washington State. “While we were trying to figure out which backyard to go to see which birds, Brad would already be there, telling us what to look for and where. He was always a step or two ahead of me. But there was never any competition between us. I knew I could never keep up with him.”

Instead of a sibling rivalry, a supportive relationship flourished. Kent often turned to his younger brother by a year for advice on his research on wildlife. In return, Kent, an expert carpenter, tended to household repairs during annual visits to his brother’s home.

“We’d go to Powdermill Nature Reserve or a nearby park to watch birds,” Kent says. “A couple years ago, we took a two-week trip to Ecuador, the coolest thing I ever did with him. It was good to see another country and so many different birds that we always wanted to see. Mostly, I enjoyed spending so much time with him. He was like my twin brother.”

Over the years, Dick Zusi also logged many hours with Livezey. The former curator of birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History collaborated with the Carnegie Museums scientist on an exhaustive and unprecedented project that cataloged the anatomical variations and coding for all major birds. This research, culled over a decade, analyzes more than 2,700 bird “characters”—traits such as beak shape, relative wing proportions, and feather characteristics—to create the most comprehensive bird classification scheme known to science. It’s an invaluable reference tool used by working scientists around the world, says Zusi, and its use is only expected to climb as more and more researchers use molecular identification—which is faster and easier than skeletal identification—but doesn’t provide as complete a “picture” of birds.

Away from the Smithsonian, a lasting friendship emerged. “I had an apartment in my basement where Brad would stay while he was doing research at the museum,” says Zusi. “We talked a lot, but he wasn’t the sort of person to sit around and make idle chatter. We were always comfortable together, whether we were working on a project or just talking about politics. I miss that very much.”

Closer to home, Carnegie Museum of Natural History colleague John Wible, curator and head of the mammals section, enjoyed a long working relationship with Livezey, even though they occupied offices in separate buildings about two miles apart. Wible remembers a guy who was “an interesting mix, an enigma.”

“Certain things were incredibly easy for Brad,” he says. “He was an amazing artist who could hand draw the most detailed and intricate bird illustrations for his pub-lications. On the other hand, he could barely operate the Photoshop program on his computer.”

Forever investigating a new aspect of bird evolution, Livezey passed away in the midst of revisions on a major paper set for publication later this year. As his longtime in-house editor, Wible faces a daunting challenge.

“I’m tasked with making final edits to the manuscript,” he says. “But it’s hard to do. I get emotional when I think about him. It just seems too soon.”

Livezey’s death leaves a significant hole in his field—and at the Museum of Natural History—that will be difficult to replace.

“Brad’s intellectual capacity was profound,” says Sam Taylor, director of the museum. “In his role as first dean of science, he set standards for scholarship and curatorial review that are still employed today.”

“There are maybe two handfuls of people in the world with the knowledge Brad possessed,” adds Rogers. “The attention to detail in his work was uncommon. And he expected rigorous science from everyone at the museum. He wanted our work to be among the best.”

Tax-deductible contributions to the Bradley C. Livezey Endowment for Ornithological Research can be sent to: Director of Development, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.



Also in this issue:

Spacewalker  ·  Pittsburgh Bred  ·  Tracking the Origins of Humans  ·  The Ragnar Kjartansson Experience  ·  Special Section: A Tribute to Our Donors  ·  Directors' Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: John Wetenhall  ·  About Town: Show-stopping Science  ·  Artistic License: Mixed Signals  ·  The Big Picture