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Mary Alice Root: Ornithologist brought prehistoric bird back to New Mexico

ROOT: Was retired from UNM. Died Jan. 31.
ROOT: Was retired from UNM. Died Jan. 31.

She might be best known for bringing a 7-foot-tall, flightless bird back to New Mexico after a 50-million-year absence.

Mary Alice Root single-handedly engineered a campaign to install a fossil replica of the diatryma – a massive bird that once roamed northwestern New Mexico – at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

“The very first fossils of that bird were found in New Mexico and identified in New Mexico,” said Tish Morris, a retired museum educator who worked with Root for many years. “And she’s going, ‘You know, you can’t see it. You can’t see it at the museum. You can’t see it anywhere in the Southwest.’ ”

Root, a retired University of New Mexico administrator and ornithologist, died Jan. 31 at age 89.

She lived in Albuquerque for more than 60 years. During that time, she established herself as an expert in the birding world, traveling to more than 60 countries, helping to start the Albuquerque chapter of the Audubon Society, serving as president of the New Mexico Ornithological Society, and co-editing a book called the “New Mexico Bird Finding Guide.”

She moved to Minnesota in 2009 after she became ill with lymphoma for treatment and to be near her son.

Root was born and raised in Indianapolis. Her aunt and uncle supplied her with bird guides and binoculars from an early age.

“She used to say at any one time there were about five kids at home, so just to get away and get some one-on-one time with adults, she’d go bird-watching with them,” said her daughter, Terry Root. “And she got really hooked on it.”

She got a degree in physics and math from Butler University in 1946, married L. Jay Root in 1947 and then moved to Albuquerque. They had three children, Dana Lynn, Terry Louise and Bryan Jay.

Root started out teaching physics at UNM, then became an assistant administrator in the physics and astronomy department, and later an administrator in the biology department.

While at UNM, she continued her education, taking classes in Spanish, anthropology, biology and ornithology.

“She was somebody who was always learning, and always interested in learning,” Morris said.

In 1978, she began leading birding trips, giving lectures, and writing articles and guides. She traveled all over the world, keeping meticulous lists of all the birds she saw and countries she visited, her daughter said.

In her retirement, Root developed an expertise on fossil birds through self-directed study, Morris said.

That’s when she learned that the first diatryma bones were found in 1874 in the San Juan Basin. It was the largest bird of its day.

She started a campaign to track down the fossil bones at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and raise the $10,000 it would take to pay for a scientifically precise replica. The museum has had the cast since 2001.

The strong-willed woman would correct her daughter, Terry, a Stanford University professor, when she suggested her mother was merely instrumental in bringing the cast to the museum.

“She would always get irritated when I would say that,” Terry Root said. “Because she said, ‘I wasn’t instrumental, I did it all myself.’”

She is survived by her daughter Dana and son-in-law Kris Hansen; her daughter Terry; her son Bryan and daughter-in-law Valerie; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A public celebration of her life and accomplishments is scheduled for Saturday, May 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
— This article appeared on page C4 of the Albuquerque Journal

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