Interview with Frances James, November 20, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Frances James was a professor at the University of Florida and a member of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). She explains how she entered the field of ecology and describes her ornithological research. Retired from the University of Florida, James continues to conduct research and write peer reviews.

Interview notes 

Fran had an all-consuming interest in birds since childhood in Philadelphia.  There were many bird watchers and ornithologists in the area that took her under their wing. She didn’t know that you could have a career in ecology or ornithology, but she went to the University of Louisiana for graduate work where she worked with George Lowry in an exciting ornithology program for her M.S. in 1952. Lowry and his students, and hundreds of others including Boy Scouts, around the country watched bird silhouettes migrating across the moon at night using. This was effective for two days before and two nights after the full moon in the fall; she would sometimes see 1,000 birds in one night.  Her research found that small songbirds were traveling with the wind, not using the Mississippi River for navigation.   

Fran's parents were not biologists, but she went on “expeditions” with the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences staff. She worked at MBL as a waitress and then went to Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in zoology.  

She is still active in research at 85 years old and quilts; she retired around 15 years prior to the interview.

Milestones during her career

Fran married an ornithologist and went to Arkansas where her husband was on the faculty. They raised three daughters, but there was no doctoral program at Arkansas at the time.  The department finally agreed to let her work on a Ph.D. in ecology, not ornithology, with an eight-member committee that included other universities.  It worked ok.

Gradually her interests shifted to intraspecific variation in birds; how geography and habitat affected morphology.  She used multivariate analysis and was interested in the niche concept.  Her dissertation was published in Ecology in 1970; it was an analysis of size variation in a group of birds, asking if the same patterns occurred within and among species.
Fran read and translated Bergman’s long paper in German; he looked at intra-generic variation.  She commented on Bergman’s Rule during the interview and how it’s been misinterpreted.  
She taught at the University of Arkansas for ten years; she comments on being a faculty wife.  There were not many opportunities for advancement, but she did manage to do some research.  At the time she didn’t think of it as discrimination. 

She was invited to become a program officer at NSF in 1973 and stayed for four years. She left to join the Florida State University faculty.

In the 1980s, Fran became involved with a large study on blackbirds and worked for a while with Jim Karr.

She likes single species ecology and community ecology; she comments on the state of population ecology.

She worked on transferring bird eggs from one nest to another along broad latitudinal gradients to see how much variation in birds is genetic, and how much is environmental, in an attempt to do experiments to get at cause and effect.  The taxonomy of birds is full of subspecies.  Essentially, she used “transplant experiments” as had been done by plant ecologists like Clausen, Keck, and Heisey.  She found environmental effects as well as genetic effects.

Fran began to study red-cockaded woodpeckers in Florida in the late 1980s because of her interest in this increasingly rare bird. She was cautioned about continuing her research in Mexico, for safety reasons, and she wanted to develop a more local research program.  Local people didn’t want any reduction in tree cutting to preserve habitat for the woodpeckers, so she became involved with conservation biology and considerable controversy.  She was invited to join boards of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, and others at a time when ecologists and ESA were involved with taking on practical problems. 

What was a common theme during her career?

Habitat influences on morphology; ecological morphology. Now she’s doing some work in paleoecology.  

Balancing personal and professional life

There were very few female grad students in ecology when she was a grad student, but she’s seen phenomenal changes.  She never felt that she had to fight for her advancement.  There are more women than men now. You don’t think about the conflicts between raising children, etc., and doing your professional work, “You just do it.”  She feels very fortunate to experience what she has. 

How have graduate students influenced her career?  

She likes working with grad students very much; she wanted them to work independently and they often published their papers independently.  It’s been 15 years since she’s had a grad student.

How has ecology changed?

She gravitated toward ecology after getting involved with AIBS and ESA, but she thinks ornithologists are too narrow.  

How has community ecology changed?  She didn’t want to comment on that; Tom Miller gave his perspective.  

She thinks some long-standing problems in data analysis still need resolving, regarding hypothesis testing.

How has ESA changed as an organization?

She thinks ESA’s new journals are “just wonderful,” including the applied journals.  She really likes
Frontiers and the position papers that ESA produces.  Team research is now more common, which NSF is encouraging. 

How to advise grad students to help assure their success?

She says to learn how to work as a team member; find a subject that you can master and know more about than anyone else.  Getting money for research is a problem, and she’s glad that applied and basic research is a part of ESA and the discipline. 

What drives you to continue research well into retirement?

It’s enjoyable. 

Other projects in mind?

Fran discusses being upset about the research on “protofeathers.”  She’s now very interested in the soil to learn if we can determine how old the soils are.  It’s the soil that creates the habitat for other organisms. She thinks that longleaf pine forest soils are 5,000 years old and “we shouldn’t be plowing them up.”  The soils support biodiversity.  

Any major shift in the paradigm for conservation biology?

Tom Miller implied that the new paradigm for conservation biology is to get away from just protecting what we have, and more about what are we going to do about the current predicament with climate change.  Fran agreed that there is debate about this, and probably there should be, but she still thinks habitat is worth protecting.


Fran comments again on proto-feathers and the need to do a better job of hypothesis testing.

It also annoys her to read about the effects of a warmer climate, measured with dry bulb thermometers, as though dry bulb temperature is what the plants and animals feel.  That’s too simplistic in her eyes.  “Thermal ecology is in the doldrums.”  Physiological ecology is not being incorporated as it should be.

She doesn’t like it when people say, “all the birds are declining.”  It’s not a good generalization.  Deciduous forest is actually increasing, and the birds that depend on them are also, like the scarlet tanager.  Some bird species are increasing, and others are decreasing.  She wrote a review paper on this subject. 






Oral History Item Type Metadata


46 minutes


Frances James and Thomas Miller, “Interview with Frances James, November 20, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed February 25, 2024,