Early Life and Education
Johnson Neff was born on October 29, 1900 in Marionville, Missouri where he grew up on a farm. He received a B.S. in horticulture from the University of Missouri in 1924 and a M.S. from Oregon State College in 1926. After school he returned to Missouri to work as an orchard property manager and president of the Lawrence County, Missouri Farm Bureau. In August, 1930 Neff accepted a job in the Food Habits Division of the United States Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS). He moved to California where he worked for the BBS and the California State Department of Agriculture.
Bird banding proved to be a life-long pursuit for Neff. In addition to his work for the
federal government, Neff banded birds from his Englewood, CO home as a member of the Western Bird Banding Association. He wrote articles for their publication including one that encouraged fellow bird banders to focus their efforts on band-tailed pigeons, white-wing doves and mourning doves, which were of interest to Neff personally and professionally. Neff's article emphasized the importance of banding to formulate hunting policies.
Denver Wildlife Research Center
Neff moved to the Denver Wildlife Research Center in 1940 where he performed studies including bird depredations in Arkansas rice fields. He invented non-lethal forms of bird control that included scaring birds, using mild chemicals, and planting at times of the
year least likely to be affected by bird roosting. Neff believed that birds usually did more good than harm because they ate insects that caused extreme damage to crops.
Midway Island - Neff's Favorite Assignment
According to a letter to friends located at the Denver Public Library, Neff's favorite assignment studied bird obstructions to airplanes on Midway Island in 1955. Midway
Island housed a U.S. Naval Base where east-bound military aircraft stopped to refuel.
Neff observed the habits of the albatross or gooney bird and banded the birds for further research. Neff described the birds as impossible to deter. The birds did not react to noise, smoke, vibrations, or egg destruction. In a speech Neff claimed, "Albatross have no fear and frequently stand calmly on the runway even when the wings of a moving transport pass overhead. On such occasions the hazard is to the bird, not the plane, as the backwash from the four great propellers spins them down the runway end over end. At times the wind from the plane knocked them over, causing damage to their wings."
Neff believed that the albatross did not cause enough injury to warrant killing them. Many in the aviation industry agreed that advances in airline technology would make the island unnecessary in the next five to seven years. The albatross remained unmolested on Midway Island.
Neff retired in 1964 and received the Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award. The award read: "He, more than anyone else, has been responsible for developing present bird damage control techniques that are based on the recognition that the populations involved are interesting wildlife species to be preserved, but that local control of depredating birds is necessary in some situations. His good judgment and skillful work had a great impact in establishing the policies, and philosophy that have guided the Bureau in bird control over the years."