Sushma Reddy’s earliest, most vivid memory with birds wasn’t in a tropical rainforest or a remote mountain range. It was in New York City.
As she was finishing her undergraduate studies in environmental science at Barnard College, Reddy landed an internship at the American Museum of Natural History, which is conveniently located across the street from Central Park.
“I still remember walking to the park and seeing gorgeous birds through my binoculars,” says Reddy. “Unlike a lot of ornithologists, that experience happened to me later in life, in an urban setting.”
During that internship, Reddy investigated the distribution of species across geographic space and time. It was the right fit, given her interest in maps and conservation biology. It was also her introduction to museums and the world of birds.
“I loved being able to go out and see birds in the field, but also working with the data that comes from museum collections.”
A bird in the hand… Reddy in the field in Africa recovering a babbler from a mist net.
Plate 92 - Pigeon Hawk: "At this season the old birds evinced great concern respecting their eggs or young, remaining about them, and shewing all the tokens of anger and vexation which other courageous species exhibit on similar occasions."
Sushma Reddy in the Bell's ornithology collection.
After earning her Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and behavior from Columbia University, she moved to Chicago. There, she completed her postdoctoral studies at the Field Museum and joined Loyola University as an associate professor in biology.
Reddy’s current research looks at the evolutionary history of birds by combining genetic, phenotypic, and geographic data. In fact, she was part of the first study that resolved many early branches of the avian tree of life. Before that, our knowledge of how major bird groups were related was limited.
In August 2018, all of Reddy’s interests came together in one place at the University of Minnesota. She joined the Bell Museum as the Breckenridge Chair of Ornithology, where she oversees a collection of more than 46,000 bird specimens, along with a research program. She also serves as an associate professor in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology.
“What was really attractive to me about the University of Minnesota was I could be at a university and a museum at the same time,” says Reddy. “It’s exciting that the Bell has been renovated into this newly re-imagined space of research, education, outreach, and exhibits.”
The region also offers a blend of urban/wild that Reddy knows and loves. She and her husband and two daughters spent the summer visiting Minnesota parks, hiking, camping, and fishing. She says her family looks forward to winter activities, too, instead of hiding inside like they did in Chicago.
At the Bell, Reddy plans to expand the bird collection to better understand the changes that are happening in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. She’ll also contribute her own specimens from India and Madagascar, where she has studied how species evolved in terms of genetics, plumage color, bill shape, habitat needs, and more.
“I’m hoping one of the things I can do is bring awareness to more of the population about the importance of museum collections,” she says. “Maybe that will inspire them to visit more often, to volunteer, or to help us do more research.”