Peter Marler, 86, a pioneering animal intelligence researcher, died of pneumonia on July 5, 2014 at a nursing home in Davis, California, “following a long illness,” reported Los Angeles Times obituarist Steve Chawkins. “His death came hours after a wildfire forced Marler, who had been under hospice care, and his family to flee their house near Winters, about 30 miles west of Sacramento. His family returned safely to the home after his death,” Chawkins wrote.
“As a boy,” Chawkins recalled, Marler “raised birds in his family’s working-class home outside of London and more than once had to return items filched from neighbors by his felonious rook.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in botany from the University of London, Marler went on to complete a second doctorate in zoology at Cambridge. “His research at Cambridge University in England established that birds learn their songs from other birds, rather than instinctively,” wrote Sacramento Bee obituarist Robert D. Davila.
Marler emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 to take a position at the University of California in Berkeley. He and his wife Judith made the journey “on a freighter with a cage full of jackdaws,” Judith Marler told Chawkins. Sailing through the Panama Canal, surrounded by forests full of birds new to him, Marler “just ran from one side of the deck to the other, looking at as many birds as he could,” Judith Marler remembered.
Marler spent nine years in Berkeley, studying communication about white-crowned sparrows and monkey communications in Uganda while on sabbatical.
White-crowned sparrow dialects “are so well marked that if you really know your white-crowned sparrows, you’ll know where you are in California,” Marler told the Sacramento Bee in 1997.
After a stint at Rockefeller University in New York, Marler studied chimpanzee and vervet calls with Jane Goodall in Tanzania. They reported their findings to the annual meeting of the American Society of Primatologists in 1983.
Summarized Chawkins, “His team found that vervet monkeys issued alarm calls indicating just what kind of predator might be coming along. If there was word of a leopard nearby, monkeys would skitter up the treetops; with warnings of an eagle, they would plunge deep into the bush.”
Marler joined the University of California at Davis faculty in 1989, helping to found the U.C. Davis Center for Neuroscience. Marler retired in 1994, but remained associated with U.C. Davis as a professor emeritus for the rest of his life.
”I think that birds are going to replace the white rat as the favored subject for studying functional neuroanatomy,” Marler in 2005 predicted to Sandra Blakeslee of The New York Times.