Charles Kemper '40

Birds and Survival
April 1, 2007
Charles Kemper ’40, Birds and Survival

Studying birds is a kind of passion of mine,” says Charles Kemper of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Kemper, an old-style country doctor, remembers making house calls out in the country: “I always had my binoculars on the seat in the car beside me.” Kemper retired from medicine in 1992, but it doesn’t look as if he’ll ever retire from birding.

Kemper, eighty-seven, is an active member of the Chippewa Wildlife Society, which he founded in the 1950s. He still participates in the group’s Christmas bird counts, although he missed the most recent one because he got snowed in while visiting family members in Denver.

Charles Kemper

But Kemper is more than your average weekend birdwatcher. For some fifty years, he has been banding birds as a licensed volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So far, he’s banded about 86,000.

In 1996, he published a paper in Passenger Pigeon, an ornithological journal that is frequently cited in scientific literature. The paper details his decades-long study of avian deaths at a local television tower. For forty-five years, beginning in 1957, Kemper or a helper visited the tower before dawn every morning during spring and fall migration seasons to count and identify the birds that had died in collisions with the tower the night before. His data provided scientists with valuable information about migration times and routes. “I guess if I wasn’t such a nut, I wouldn’t have bothered with it,” he says. “But I was intensely interested.”

Migrating birds are attracted to the lights on television, radio, and cell-phone towers and will circle them for hours. Many mornings, Kemper found hundreds of dead birds. One morning he found 11,000. In 2002, he discontinued his study because he was no longer finding dead birds. He says he’s not certain why, but speculates that birds are becoming accustomed to the towers.

Legendary ornithologist Chandler Robbins, a senior author of Birds of North America, says Kemper’s tower study has been a significant contribution to ornithology. “Bird kills vary day to day and season to season, so it’s important to get a long-term record,” he says. “Quite a few people have done this for a night or two, but Dr. Kemper did it for years and years.”

At Duke, Kemper majored in biology, then attended medical school and interned at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. While training at Fort Kelly in Texas, Kemper met Margaret Johnson, and they were married. Three weeks later he shipped out.

After the war, Kemper and his wife settled in west-central Wisconsin, and he began his career as a general practitioner. “We did everything,” he says. “We delivered babies and did appendectomies and gall bladders.” The Kempers raised three children; today they have six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Despite his busy career and family life, Kemper always found time for birds. These days, he still bands birds in his back yard and in a nearby eighty-acre woodlot he owns, and he participates in meetings and bird outings of the Chippewa Wildlife Society. Patty Henry, the group’s secretary and treasurer, says, “If he is not the most knowledgeable birder in the state right now, he ranks up there. Everyone knows Dr. Kemper.”

Kemper, who recently finished a book, Birds of the Chippewa Land, that will be published this year, has no plans to slow down. “I’m still going full blast working with birds.”