Raymond Andrew Paynter, Jr., died on 10 July 2003, five years after suffering a severe stroke. Having joined the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) in 1946, he became an Elective Member in 1952 and a Fellow in 1963. In 2001, together with Melvin A. Traylor, Jr., he received the Elliott Coues Award for their career accomplishments in Neotropical avian systematics and zoogeography. Paynter is survived by his wife of 43 years, Elizabeth Storer (Biz) Paynter, their daughter Dorothy P. Pollock, son Raymond A. Paynter III, and three grand- children.
Ray was born on 29 November 1925 in New York City and attended Cheshire Academy, a rigorous college preparatory school. At age 16 he used money earned from local yard work to travel alone to Mexico to see the tropics first- hand, confirming his early interest in natural history. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1946, and his studies in Herring Gull behavior on Kent Island contributed some of the first publications to that long-term project. He spent several years afterward collecting birds in central and southern Mexico, and this became the focus of his doctoral research at Yale (Ph.D. in 1954). His dissertation, Ornithogeography of the Yucatan Peninsula, presaged a career-long interest in zoogeography. During this period, he was among the first outsiders to visit the Lacandon villages of interior Chiapas, Mexico, and once frightened an entire village by riding in unannounced on a mule, disheveled and yellow from quinine he was taking to fight a case of malaria.
Sponsored in part by S. Dillon Ripley, Paynter spent the next several years collecting birds for Yale’s Peabody Museum and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). In addition to Central America, he collected in Nepal, Pakistan, and India. In 1953, he became Assistant Curator of Birds at the MCZ, and in 1961 he was named Curator of Birds and Senior Lecturer at Harvard. His enthusiasm for leading collecting expeditions to remote tropical locales came to a bloody, near-fatal end in November, 1965, in the forested Andes of southeastern Ecuador. Camped at the outskirts of a small village, Biz and he were attacked viciously in their tent by superstitious, machete-wielding locals. Biz, cut to the bone on her scalp and hand, feigned being dead. Ray struggled in vain to assemble a gun, and eventually escaped the collapsed tent. The attackers left him for dead at the edge of a ditch, with a double skull fracture and one arm nearly severed. Their student, David Norton, had sprinted off in the dark and ran miles in stocking feet to summon help. Fortunately, the U.S.S Hope had been stationed off the Ecuadorian coast the year before, leaving a crew of U.S. doctors to train their Ecuadorian counterparts in Cuenca where the Paynters were treated the following day.
Paynter’s original post at Harvard was created to facilitate collaboration with Ernst Mayr in editing the final volumes of Check-list of Birds of the World, following the death of James A. Peters in 1952. Paynter eventually edited or co- edited the final six volumes of that monumental compendium. That work led to his fascination with, and revisions of, the taxonomy of several groups of nine-primaried oscines, especially the genus Atlapetes and relatives. In 1966, he became Editor of the Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, a post he held for 32 years (volumes 6–27). In 1970, he began the project that, together with editing the Nuttall series and curating the enormous MCZ collection, would consume most of his meticulous professional attention and effort for the rest of his career. Frustrated by the lack of an organized reference for mapping collecting localities of South American museum specimens, Paynter developed a card catalogue of all localities he encountered on specimen labels or in the taxonomic literature. Each card bore the locality name, any alternative spellings, notes on who collected there and when, and—most importantly—the latitude, longitude, and (if known) elevation of the collecting site. As the card file grew (aided by industrious undergraduate volunteers learning the trade), Paynter increasingly recognized its significance to all future Neotropical systematists. From 1975 onward, the herculean task of organizing all these locality records was facilitated by his extraordinary assistant, Alison Pirie. The result was a unique series of 11 pain- stakingly researched ornithological gazetteers, published from 1975 to 1993, that covered all 13 South American countries. Several were the work of Ray’s editorial colleague and longtime friend, Mel Traylor, who was based at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Paynter published several second editions of these gazetteers, and was within weeks of completing the Venezuelan revision at the time of his stroke in 1998. That manuscript remains unpublished.
Ray Paynter’s contributions to ornithology extend beyond his 130 publications and edited volumes. In 1973 he chaired a memorable Annual Meeting of the AOU in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in celebration of the Nuttall Club centennial. He taught the undergraduate ornithology course at Harvard, and in 1970 he began hosting a unique, limited-enrollment freshman seminar on zoogeography. Over the ensuing two decades, dozens of young college students were transformed from birdwatchers into professional scientists under Paynter’s guidance, learning to use both the bird collection and the library to ask their own questions about birds and evolution. Many undergraduate projects advised by Paynter, after first being subjected to his editorial scrutiny, were published in peer-reviewed journals. The fifth-floor MCZ experience was enriched by occasional chats with Ernst Mayr in the next-door office and by the daily ritual of afternoon coffee (switched to tea in the late 1970s) in Paynter’s office. Publicly rather shy and not gregarious, Paynter nonetheless eagerly talked politics or science with any member of his student flock who dropped in. He left the office promptly at 5:00 every afternoon, hanging his clean white lab coat on the same hook, his necktie still in place, his desk spotlessly clean, and all his papers properly filed.
Not a hardcore birdwatcher, Ray actually held some disdain for life-listers, whom he discouraged from making regular use of the superb bird collection at Harvard. Indeed, many professional visitors to the MCZ regarded him as a mystery—aloof, occasionally even gruff and impatient. Although he never collected in the field again after his harrowing episode in Ecuador, several times during the 1970s and 1980s he led spring-break excursions to introduce his most serious undergraduate students to the living birds of the American tropics. A number of his students, myself among them, became professional ornithologists as a result of Paynter’s kind, first-class mentoring. Subsequently, I was fortunate to discover and name a new brush-finch in his honor (Atlapetes leucopterus paynteri), an endemic form of the Peru and Ecuador border now better treated as a full species.
Ray Paynter was a quiet, thoughtful man of high standards. Despite a conservative bent (he wore a necktie even on weekend strolls), he had surprising tolerance for the diversity and foibles of energetic undergraduates. Above all, he had deep and abiding love of his family. He was a dedicated husband and father, and loved nothing better than to leave the very comfortable Paynter home in Weston, Massachusetts, to spend weekends at their rustic cabin in southern New Hampshire, which lacked electricity and running water. There he banded Tree Swallows, tended a Christmas-tree grove and large orchard of heritage-variety apple trees, and even hand-cobbled the quarter-mile drive into the cabin. He took his family to the tropics several times, during which he no doubt regaled them with stories from his expedition days—riding alone through tropical scrub, sitting still awaiting revelations in the forest understory while eating chocolate or smoking his pipe, packing mules to make a new camp in the foothills. Those adventurous days are preserved in the thousands of specimens he collected; in the papers, books, and gazetteers he produced; in the devotion of his students to scientific ideals; and in the enduring values of the loving family he and Biz created.