Journalist Jim Robbins

Jim Robbins 

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Several years ago I wrote a story for the New York Times about the University of Montana's Flight Lab. It's located at Fort Missoula and does some of the top research in the country on animal locomotion. They focus on birds, and my interest was in their work with hummingbirds.

No other bird flies like a hummer, and lab director Bret Tobalske and his team place the little flyers in wind tunnels and take high-speed video of them to better understand exactly how these birds that weigh less than two paperclips can hover for an hour or more, or fly upside down and backwards or power across hundreds of miles through pounding rain and ferocious winds.

The story turned into book called "The Wonder of Birds," which was published in May by Penguin Random House. To my pleasant surprise, I found I didn't have to go very far from my home in Helena to do much of the research. In addition to the Tobalske lab, I discovered that Montana has a flock of top bird researchers that some experts say is second only to the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, the famed Lab of O, in Ithaca, New York.

The founder of the Flight Lab, for example, is Ken Dial, who pioneered much of the work here on the physiology of bird flight and has traveled around the world studying birds. Now a professor emeritus at the University of Montana, his research on baby birds in particular give rise to a new and respected theory of how dinosaurs first took to the air and why they would have had burgeoning wings in the first place if they couldn't already fly. His take: a half a wing first stabilized their running so they were better able to evade predators when they hatched. Over the course of evolution the wings became useful for flight.

Richard Hutto, also a professor emeritus, uses birds as sentinels to understand changes in the natural world. His specialty is black-backed woodpeckers, a species which tells us how essential severely burned forests are for biodiversity the West.

"After a fire burns a forest is when the magic happens," Hutto says. Morel mushrooms, wild geraniums, mountain bluebirds and other species thrive in burned areas. Since the black-backed woodpecker feeds exclusively in burned forests, his work has shown that counting woodpeckers is a way to gauge the health of biodiversity in the Rocky Mountain west.

Denver Holt founded the Owl Research Institute on a historic farm in the shadow of the Mission Mountains near Charlo. He is doing long-term research on long-eared owls near Missoula and he travels to the Arctic every year to do field work on snowy owls. It was my treat to travel to Polson with Denver a few years ago during an irruption of snowy owls, to see 14 of the white birds sitting on rooftops in a subdivision overlooking Flathead lake.

Erick Greene at the University of Montana is known for his work on the language of the birds and how they pack so much information into their calls and songs. Chickadee is one of most complex languages in the animal kingdom, and is understood by squirrels and other creatures.

These are only a few of the self-described "bird nerds" who do their research in Missoula and western Montana. World class bird research might not come to mind when people think of Montana, but it should.

Jim Robbins is a longtime Montanan who writes for the New York Times. He'll be signing his book, "The Wonder of Birds," at the Montana Book Festival on Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. at Shakespeare & Co. 

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