A Tribute to Bill Thompson III, a Birding Leader, Innovator, and Friend

The affable, witty editor of “Bird Watcher’s Digest” built bridges for beginners and experts alike.

William H. Thompson III, publisher, musician, birder, and friend, died last month at his home in Whipple, Ohio, on his own terms after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Known to his thousands of admirers as simply “Bill,” he edited the popular Bird Watcher’s Digest (BWD), which was founded by his parents Bill Sr. and Elsa Thompson. He’ll be remembered for his wit and passion for life, and for his help in shaping an avocation that so many of us savor. 

For proof of Bill’s many accomplishments, look no further than BWD. The informative magazine captures the fun and discovery of birding, bringing a greater awareness and appreciation of avian life to one million-plus followers. I recall his parents Bill and Elsa visiting me in 1978, when I was the newly minted director of Cape May Bird Observatory, to pitch their idea for a new kind of bird publication—one not tied to a conservation organization but supported by the public. As the ranks of birders grew, they wanted to lend the strength of their vision to the renaissance, enlisting writers such as Roger Tory Peterson, Kenn Kaufman, Judy Toups, and (very happily) me. In 1984, the Thompsons jumped to sponsor my initiative, the World Series of Birding, in its inaugural run.

It wasn’t long before the younger Bill joined the fray of the contest with future partner Julie Zickefoose. I can’t say that the couple met on the World Series, but I do know that they bonded there. The day after the event, Bill and Julie spent the afternoon circling Lake Lilly on Cape May Point, New Jersey. Their route carried them past my office window—and by about the third lap, I knew I was witnessing the beginning of something very special. Years later, they became proud parents to young treasures, Phoebe and Liam.

Bill always welcomed new people into his life well before fatherhood. He won over beginner birders with his infectious enthusiasm and approachability, and impressed experienced birders with his skills. My wife Linda and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Trinidad and Tobago with him and Julie several years ago. Linda and Julie bonded immediately, and the four of us delved into the practice and birds that dominated our lives.

My list of adventures with Bill stretches back to the 1970s, when he and I found ourselves on a tour of Israel with dozens of European ornithologists and birders. Bill, the youngest among us, quickly galvanized the group with his exuberance and charm—qualities that, over the decades, earned him a place among North America’s avian elite. In addition to authoring 18 books about bird life and their study, Bill founded the American Birding Expo, recorded a popular podcast, spoke at birding festivals across the world, and played lead guitar in a band with Julie. His death leaves a gaping hole in our ranks that may never be filled.  

The scores of birding luminaries that posted condolences after Bill’s death speak to his reach and personality. He now joins Roger Peterson, Chan Robbins, Judy Toups, Rick Blom, Maurice and Irma Broun, Rosalie Edge, and all the other pioneers who left their indelible marks on our field. His spark will burn on with every printing of BWD; I’ll look forward to my next foray with him in its pages every month.   

If you care to honor the legacy of this birding legend, I entreat you to stop what you’re doing, grab your binoculars, and spend a moment with the feathered world. From American Robins in Whipple, Ohio, to Arabian Babblers in Eilat, Israel, Bill loved all of the birds, and all of us loved him for bringing them to our attention as only he could.