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1 October 2000 IN MEMORIAM: ERNST SUTTER, 1914–1999
Raffael Winkler, Luc Schifferli
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Ernst Sutter died on 9 November 1999 after a short illness. He was born in Basel, Switzerland, on 7 August 1914 and was educated there. As a schoolboy, he was in the field well before the first morning lessons started. In the 1930s, together with the Swiss Ornithological Institute, he participated in the first pioneering field courses to band and measure birds in their migration through the Alps. He completed his Ph.D. thesis on growth and development of the avian brain in Galliformes and Passeriformes in 1943 under the supervision of Professor Adolf Portmann. Two years later, he became Curator of the Bird Collection of the Natural History Museum in Basel. Following his retirement in 1980, he continued his scientific work on an honorary basis until his death, thus serving the Basel museum for 55 years.

In 1949, Sutter organized a nine-month field expedition to Sumba in Indonesia, together with ethnologist Alfred Bühler. Among 65,000 zoological specimens were 770 birds. Based on these specimens, the races of two species of buttonquail were revised and five new subspecies described. A list of the taxa was published in White and Bruce's The Birds of Wallacea (BOU Checklist No. 7, 1986).

The Sumba trip was Sutter's only collecting expedition. From his excellent contacts with the Swiss Ornithological Institute, Sutter obtained specimens found dead within Switzerland. He expanded the bird collection at the Natural History Museum to become one of the important collections in Europe.

In 1954, Sutter encountered radar technology at the Zurich airport and realized that this could be a unique tool for studies of bird migration. Shortly thereafter, in 1956, Sutter conducted one of the first systematic studies of nocturnal migration by radar. The presentation of a radarfilm at the International Ornithological Congress in Helsinki in 1958 made him world renowned.

Sutter's other main interests concerned avian growth patterns. As a student of Professor Adolf Portmann, a leading zoologist and anthropologist involved in juvenile development of birds in an evolutionary context, Sutter originally worked on growth and functional development of the brain and body as well as on molt and feather growth. His major publications covered woodpeckers, the White Stork, and growth and molt in buttonquails and galliforms. Late in life, Sutter reanalyzed some of his original data, and in his last days he completed editing a final manuscript in the hospital. An enormous amount of information on molt and feather growth was incorporated in the Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas by Glutz von Blotzheim and Bauer, and Stresemann and Stresemann relied on his unpublished data on molt of megapodes in their book on molt.

Ernst Sutter was a modest and quiet person with a profound knowledge in most fields of scientific ornithology. He measured and recorded precisely, almost to perfection. His wide interests, scrutiny, and perspicacity made him eminently qualified to edit Der Ornithologische Beobachter, the ornithological journal of German-speaking Switzerland. With his advice, constructive criticism, and support, Sutter transformed this periodical into a scientifically valuable and highly appreciated journal for amateurs and professionals alike. His editing was not restricted to the content of the papers. He took care of the layout, revised the text for clarity and conciseness, and improved the graphs and figures. Although not a staff member of the university, he actively assisted in the supervision of many master's and doctoral theses. His contributions to scientific ornithology, nearly 100 papers, reached far beyond the national scale.

Along with Adolf Portmann, Sutter edited the Proceedings of the 11th International Ornithological Congress held in Basel in 1954. He also was engaged in the posthumous publication of Portmann's scientific material (Vom Wunder des Vogellebens, 1984).

Sutter's open mind and sensitive and intuitive character gained him personal contacts with colleagues throughout the world. His broad biological knowledge extended far beyond ornithology, and his scientific competence and expertise rewarded him with an international reputation. He was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the AOU in 1958 and an Honorary Fellow in 1991, and he was a Corresponding Member of the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft, the Nederlandse Ornithologische Unie, and the Asociacion Ornitologica del Plata in Argentina. In Switzerland, he received the Honorary Membership of Ala, the Swiss Ornithological Society. Finally, in 1998 he was elected an Honorary Chairman of the 23rd International Ornithological Congress to be held in Beijing, China, in 2002. Sadly, he will not be able to undertake this task.

Ernst Sutter is survived by his wife Gaby, three children, and five grandchildren. A more extensive memorial, with portrait, appeared in Der Ornithologische Beobachter 97:1–6.


Raffael Winkler and Luc Schifferli "IN MEMORIAM: ERNST SUTTER, 1914–1999," The Auk 117(4), 1031-1032, (1 October 2000).[1031:IMES]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2000
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