Mary Willson earned her PhD in 1964 at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her long career in ecology and conservation biology has included research on animal behavior and evolutionary ecology, and has resulted in more than 200 publications and numerous reports. She taught at the University of Illinois for 25 years. She has been a member of numerous scientific and professional societies, including the Ecological Society of America, the British Ecological Society, the American Society of Naturalists, and several ornithological societies. She has received numerous research grants, including awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Whitehall Foundation. She is the co-founder of Senda Darwin, a field research station on the island of Chiloé, Chile.
In 1989, Dr. Willson moved to Alaska to take a position as an ecological researcher with the US Forest Service’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Juneau. She worked for the FSL until 1999. Since then, she has continued to work as an ecological consultant and independent researcher. Her research in Alaska has included studies of seed dispersal, bird diversity in northern forests, the importance of anadromous fish in terrestrial ecosystems, and the natural history of American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus). She spent many austral spring seasons in Chile, studying the ecology of a threatened bird (the chucao, Scelorchilus rubicula) of the southern temperate rainforest. Today, she lives in Juneau, Alaska, and devotes her time to writing, exploring, collaborating with other naturalists, and advocating for conservation.