Top Illinois birder Muriel Roberts Smith dead at 92

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Muriel Roberts Smith died at 92 in October 2014. | Provided photo

Instead of a wake or funeral, the friends and family of Muriel Roberts Smith will remember her by doing what she loved: going on a bird walk.

One of Illinois’ most respected birders, the 92-year-old Wheaton resident studied feathered friends in Canada, France, Hong Kong and Attu, a remote Alaskan island that’s a famed resting spot for tired migrating fowl. Attu is featured in the 2011 film “The Big Year,” starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as near-obsessive birders.


Muriel Roberts Smith on a 1984 birding trip to the Aleutian island of Attu.

Her license plate spelled out “Dunlin,” her favorite shorebird.

She bought her former home in West Chicago because the back of the house was dominated by windows that offered a glorious view of nearby forest preserves — from a top floor that allowed her to see flying hawks, to a main floor where she enjoyed hours of entertainment, thanks to the three B’s: bird baths, bird feeders and binoculars.

“She often said, ‘I don’t get anything done — I just sit here and look out the window,’ ” said her friend Marilyn Bell, a member of the DuPage Birding Club, a group Mrs. Smith helped found.

The club’s memorial bird walk for Mrs. Smith, 92, who died in Wheaton in October, is this weekend in Winfield.

She grew up in Oak Park, where she attended Oak Park and River Forest High School. Later, she earned a psychology degree from DePauw University.

Her birding was inspired by her grandfather, coffee magnate Edward Bankes, who owned a 160-acre farm retreat near Pistakee Lake in Lake County.

“She went on a lot of walks with her grandfather, and she became quite attuned to nature out there,” said her son, Brian Glass.

An expert on avian identification, Mrs. Smith is credited for her assistance in “A Field Guide to Warblers of North America,” co-authored by Jon Dunn, one of the world’s most influential birders.

She participated in many Audubon Society Christmas bird counts, dubbed “the nation’s longest-running citizen science bird project,” as well as breeding surveys by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and the U.S. Geological Survey, her son said.

To Bell, she was a bird whisperer. Leading a group at McKee Marsh in Warrenville, she heard a song, “and she said, ‘that’s a marsh wren — let me show him to you,’ and she made little pishing noises,” Bell said. “She said, ‘Look at the cattails over there,’ — and up pops this little wren.

Muriel Roberts Smith on a bird walk.

“I was in awe because she called this little bird up,” Bell said.

Mrs. Smith took fledgling birders under her wing.

“She took the time with them to really explain things,” said Karen Fisher, another member of the DuPage Birding Club.

“She was responsible for creating a number of dedicated birders,” said Hal Cohen, a founding member of the club. “Her keen eyes and ears picked up the skulkers that were a problem for most birders. I remember my ‘life’ [first one ever spotted] white-eyed vireo that Muriel picked up by vocalization.”

“At a time when the elite birders were mostly men, she was one smart lady,” said Jody Zamirowski, also a club member. “She . . . pointed out details on birds that could not be learned in any other way. I used to write down everything she said in those talks and still refer to those notes decades later.”

“Most amazingly, Muriel’s fieldwork led to recognizing the differing flank markings of long-billed and short-billed dowitchers,” which, despite their names, are lookalikes, said Eric Walters, who helped found the Illinois Ornithological Society with a donation from Mrs. Smith. “This was before the current field guides . . . on these species ID.”

Though generous to new birders, she liked descriptions to be accurate. If someone mentioned Canadian geese, she might wryly say, “The geese are not citizens of Canada. They are Canada geese.”

In her final years, Mrs. Smith had macular degeneration.

“She still looked at birds, but it wasn’t the pleasure” it once was, Bell said, “because she couldn’t clearly see them unless they placed themselves where she could see them.”

She also is survived by another son, Steven, and a grandson.

The memorial bird walk to honor Mrs. Smith will begin at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, starting at the Gary’s Mill Road entrance of the West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve in Winfield, to the section known as Elsen’s Hill, one of her favorite spots. A celebration of her life will follow at 10 a.m. Saturday at Wyndemere Senior Living in Wheaton.

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