Arlo Jacob Raim | 1943-2010

Birds were his life’s passion. In a station wagon specially equipped with an antenna, he logged thousands of miles tracking them all over North America
Jen Cutts
Illustration by Taylor Shute

Arlo Jacob Raim was born on July 14, 1943, on a farm in West Union, Iowa, to Emil and Hazel Raim. Arlo and his older brother Lorence spent mornings and evenings helping Emil milk the cows, feed the chickens and anything else that needed doing. Hazel was a teacher who worked her way from a one-room schoolhouse to a master’s in education, so good grades were a “foregone conclusion,” says Lorence. Arlo was a quiet boy, always looking to the sky for the birds he loved (though he believed every living creature deserved a chance, so he didn’t know who to root for when the barn cats caught a bird). When Arlo was five, he was in a car accident with his grandfather. His jaw was seriously injured, and he “spent three months drinking ice cream malts,” says Lorence. He never spoke the same after, and was left with scarring on his face that he covered up with a beard as soon as he could grow one.

After high school, Arlo studied biology at a college about an hour away from the farm, graduating in 1965. Soon after, he began a master’s in avian ecology at Western Michigan University. Bill Cochran, a wildlife biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who had designed a radio transmitter light enough for small birds, got a letter from Arlo in 1970 as he was finishing up his degree. “It essentially read,” says Bill, laughing, “ ‘I want to track cowbirds. I have batteries. What else do I need?’ ” So Bill invited Arlo to the school and taught him what he knew about attaching transmitters and tuning in to the faint signals that the birds’ movement and songs generated.

Arlo stayed in Champaign and continued the Ph.D. research he had by then started. “I think he chose to study cowbirds because everyone else hated them,” says Bill. In 1975, Arlo joined Bill at the Illinois Natural History Survey, based at the university, and a great partnership was born. Bill’s transmitters were light enough, but no one could get them to stay on the birds for long.

Arlo, “a real gadgeteer,” says Bill, experimented until he hit on a process using false-eyelash glue, a technique that’s now standard in the field. (Though he finished writing his thesis in the early ’80s, Arlo never got around to defending it, always saying there were “a few loose ends.”)
Bill recalls one of his first tracking trips with Arlo: “Sixteen days that felt like 1,600 hours tracking a peregrine falcon from Green Bay to Mexico.” In the years following, with his three dogs in a station wagon specially mounted with an antenna, Arlo logged thousands of miles following migrating birds all over North America. Research contracts in the ’90s took him to Panama and Greenland.

Arlo hated to see anything go to waste; he once spent hours in the dark searching with a flashlight for foam packing chips he believed had blown into a forest. His stubbornness was invaluable where bringing in data was concerned. In 2002, his tracking of crows revealed a crucial clue in how the West Nile virus spread so rapidly: crows, being social creatures, change roosts as often as every two days (the virus lasts up to five days in the birds). Arlo’s work was published in journals (including Nature in 2003) and he was courted by institutions like Max Planck in Germany, but always chose to stay in Illinois. He was in high demand at the INHS, says Mike Ward, a former supervisor: to get the kind of data Arlo got, one has to have good ears and be willing to “commit your life to listening for quiet beeps.”

On rare occasions, Arlo would take time off from work for holidays at his niece Jodi’s home in Missouri, or long lunches at Bill’s (Arlo, who had sleep apnea, would nod off while the others chatted). He kept putting off retirement. On the drive home from a wedding last year, Arlo confided to Mike that what he’d be most upset about when he passed was not knowing what happened to his birds.

Arlo’s latest research work was on a study for the Canadian National Railway. In 2009, CN closed a deal to purchase a rail line in Chicago that runs through a forest preserve west of the city. There were concerns that an increase in rail traffic would be harmful to area wildlife. On Friday, Aug. 20, Arlo was in the preserve tracking cardinals; he’d been hired to study how the birds’ behaviour changed when trains approached. He set up a chair near the tracks, and almost certainly had his headphones on listening for the birds’ signals. It’s likely he fell asleep. A fast-moving CN train sucked him into its path and struck him, killing him instantly. Arlo was 67.