Ralph W. Schreiber; Widely Noted Ornithologist


Ralph W. Schreiber, the internationally recognized ornithologist who made headlines around the world in 1982 when he determined that 17 million sea birds had abandoned their nests and left their young to die on Christmas Island because of the weather phenomenon that came to be called El Nino, died Tuesday of pancreatic and liver cancer.

The curator and head of the Birds and Mammals sections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was 45 and died at his Los Angeles home.

Schreiber was also part of the research team that went to Anacapa Island in the Central Pacific and discovered that the increasingly widespread use of the insecticide DDT was threatening the Brown Pelican.

After he and other scientists and naturalists joined forces, use of the domestic and agricultural spray was banned.


But it was Schreiber’s 1982 foray, with his wife, Elizabeth Anne, to Australia’s Christmas Island that made him an internationally known spokesman for the avian world. Their journey late that year showed that the unsettling sea temperatures created by El Nino had made the island barren of birds. The only ones the Schreibers saw were dead.

Their research, supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, established that El Nino had worldwide repercussions.

Six months later, however, they returned to the island 230 miles south of Java and reported that the birds had returned and were rebuilding their numbers.

Before joining the Los Angeles museum in 1976, Schreiber had worked for the Smithsonian Institution, helped found and run Seabird Research Inc. and been a founding partner of Biological Research Associates Inc. While at the museum, he also taught at USC.

At the museum, Schreiber oversaw the collections of 103,000 birds and 90,000 mammals. During his tenure, plans were made for the construction of a Great Bird Hall, a $4.9-million exhibit that will feature animated birds that move and sing, in contrast to the stuffed birds featured at most museums. Construction is to begin on the hall this month.

Schreiber, a consultant to several federal and private agencies, was author or editor of more than 100 scientific and popular publications and several books.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his parents and three brothers. Contributions in his name are asked to the museum’s Ornithology Research Fund.