My grandmother, Erma "Jonnie" Fisk

Managing Real Estate Broker with Brad MacKenzie

My grandmother, Erma "Jonnie" Fisk
The Bird Lady
Amah's rescue barn owl

This picture hangs in the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Plymouth, Massachusetts, an institution for which my grandmother was a founding board member. "Amah" to us, and "Jonnie" to her many friends around the world, was an ornithologist. When she told children what her work was called, and they would invariably respond, with a quizzical look, "An ornith . . . huh?", she would lean down and say, "A bird lady, honey, a bird lady."

Peacocks of BaboquivariHer work with the Audobon Society included travels around the world. While working for the Nature Conservancy, she spent a winter by herself, occasionally provisioned by a friend who drove in to her isolated house from several hours away, beneath the Baboquivari Mountain Range in Arizona, banding birds and penning her book, "The Peacocks of Baboquivari". She wrote five books, including a primer on bird banding.

She was instrumental in the development and preservation of the Cape Cod National Seashore. In what turns out to be an apocryphal story, I've been told that she enlisted her grandchildren as "posts" for her least tern studies. I heard she made Molly, in particular, stand on the beach until one landed on her head, but Molly says that never happened!

That story may have come about because of George, the rescue barn owl in the picture. My cousin Sarah remembers: "'He was six starved inches of honey-colored fluff when he was brought to me', is the opening line of the article my grandmother wrote in The Florida Naturalist in 1971." Sarah has another photo of George perched on Amah's head, eating what appears to be a snake.

After a happy marriage, my grandfather and namesake, Bradley Fisk, left her widowed at 55. She woke up one day to watch the birds in her yard, as she often did, and decided to become an ornithologist. She spent the next 30 years living in Florida and South Orleans, Cape Cod. Her son, Brad Fisk, my mother's brother, lived next door to her on the Cape, in a house overlooking Arey's Pond, where he owned and operated the Arey's Pond Boat Yard. If you drove in to see him, you might well find him smoking a pipe and hand-carving a tiller on his porch above the pond.

Among many other stories and remembrances, I'll mention only one other accolade: a few years back, the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad and Tobago named a building after her. 

It pained her greatly to see the ways that human encroachment impacted bird populations, migrations and habitat. She didn't like that. She also didn't like blue jays.

Though my grandmother, Erma "Jonnie" Fisk, died in 1990, when I went into the Manomet Center last week in search of this photograph and introduced myself as Johnnie Fisk's grandson, broad and loving smiles overtook everyone's faces, and the kindest and most endearing of tributes to her memory poured forth, unsolicited.


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Comments (6)

Debbie Reynolds, C21 Platinum Properties
Platinum Properties- (931)771-9070 - Clarksville, TN
The Dedicated Clarksville TN Realtor-(931)320-6730

Brad, What a wonderful heritage you have. She had to have been a really smart lady to be remembered so fondly.

Jul 20, 2013 12:09 PM
Patricia Kennedy
RLAH@Properties - Washington, DC
Home in the Capital

Brad, I love your family stories and hope you keep them coming.  Gee, maybe we should have a new group for family posts!  My grandmother, Tootsie Noon, would like that.

Jul 20, 2013 12:21 PM
Brad MacKenzie
Brad MacKenzie - Duxbury, MA
Turning Houses into Homes on the South Shore

Thanks, Debbie. Smart, loyal to her causes and ddetermined.

Thanks, Pat. I'd love to hear about Tootsie.

Jul 20, 2013 08:46 PM
Kathleen Daniels, Probate & Trust Specialist
KD Realty - 408.972.1822 - San Jose, CA
Probate Real Estate Services

Brad,  What a legend!  I got the goose-bumps reading this.  I love birds.  My friends call me the bird lady which pales pathetically to your grandmother's life contribution.  Still young at age 55, and widowed, she followed her passion.  Such a wonderful story. 

Jul 21, 2013 09:52 AM
Tim Brown

Hi Brad, I have many happy memories of going to your grandmothers house in South Dade and helping her run the nets with my family. I am in Miami this weekend at my mother's house and started reading The Peacocks of Baboquivari and have already found several mentions of my family :-). I only wish that Jonnie could know that I have spent the last 25 years working as a wildlife rehabilitator and environmental educator. I do believe that the next bird we train for our Education programs will have to be named Jonnie or possibly Fisk!
Tim Brown

Jul 21, 2014 09:47 AM
Alice Fisk MacKenzie

I was a post.

Feb 19, 2015 11:15 PM