Ornithologist and Curator of Birds

Dr. Helen James exploring a cave in Hawaii. She is crouched down in a small space with a miner’s helmet.
Dr. Helen James exploring a cave on Maui. Image courtesy of Carla H. Kishinami, The Bishop Museum.

Dr. Helen James is a researcher and curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History. She specializes in studying fossil evidence of birds on Hawaii and other Pacific islands. Helen started watching birds early, as the daughter of ecologists growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Her family camped and hiked, and she and her sisters freely explored the forests and streams in their free time. Her horizons broadened during a year spent in Ghana during her father’s Fullbright Fellowship. Helen went to college in Anthropology, but remained fascinated by the paleontology and zoology of vertebrates other than humans.

After graduation, Helen came to the Smithsonian to assist Dr. Richard Zusi with research on hummingbirds, and later to help Storrs Olson identify fossil birds from the Hawaiian Islands.Collaborating with Storrs, Helen conducted long-term research that including documenting extinct species of birds from the Hawaiian Islands. She developed ways to use modern techniques such as carbon dating of bones using accelerator mass spectrometry, to understand evolutionary and ecological context. Helen later earned a PhD degree in zoology from Oxford University based on her research on the comparative osteology and phylogeny of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers (Carduelinae).