The Birding "Mecca"
by Pat Leonard

Tucked amid the trees and wetlands of Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary in Ithaca, New York, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a testament to human curiosity and a passion for learning about and protecting nature. It is housed in the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity. More than 200 students and staff work there in pursuit of the Cornell Lab’s mission: interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

As a nonprofit administrative unit of Cornell University, work at the Lab is supported in part by its 33,000 members. About 65,000 people pass through the visitors’ center each year. Millions more visit the Lab’s websites.

Visiting the Lab

Sapsucker Woods is laced with more than four miles of hiking trails. In the observatory, visitors find a 30-foot wall of windows, with handy spotting scopes nearby. Outdoor microphones pick up bird songs near the pond and the bird-feeding garden. A reconstructed study features murals by renowned painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes. High-definition movies about birds and nature play in Bartels Theater. Bird and animal voices can be explored in the sound studio and on interactive kiosks. The Wild Birds Unlimited at Sapsucker Woods gift shop is located in the observatory. A 12-minute multimedia program gives visitors a better understanding of what goes on at the Cornell Lab and how they may become part of it through citizen science.

An Army of Citizen Scientists

The Cornell Lab runs many citizen-science projects requiring varying levels of commitment—from as little as 15 minutes per year watching birds for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, to year-round reporting through the eBird online program. Citizen scientists learn about birds, habitat, and behavior. They can peek into the lives of cavity-nesting birds via the Nest Box Cams—cameras follow the courtship, egg-laying, and chick-rearing behaviors of owls, Osprey, bluebirds, and more.

The photographs featured on this page are typical of some of the best images sent in for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count photo contest. The Cornell Lab and Audubon host the event and award prizes in six categories. For the last count in 2009, we received nearly 6,000 images! Winners receive binoculars and birdfeeders donated for the event.

Learning About Birds

The Cornell Lab offers many ways to learn about birds, including the Home Study Course in Bird Biology, a self-paced, college-level course. The BirdSleuth curriculum helps elementary and middle-school students discover science through bird projects. The All About Birds website features an online bird guide with pictures, sounds, and video for hundreds of birds. Those living in the region can attend the Monday Night Seminar series, enroll in the Spring Field Ornithology course, and take part in special events. The Cornell Lab has just launched its first online course called Investigating Behavior: Courtship and Rivalry in Birds.

Peeps, Cheeps, Solos, and Serenades

The world’s largest collection of natural sounds is held in the climate-controlled archives of the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library. There are more than 170,000 recordings of birds, bats, whales, insects, frogs, elephants, and other creatures. These sounds are used by researchers around the world. They have also been used in everything from museum exhibits to Hollywood movies and singing alarm clocks. Anyone can search the Macaulay Library archive online and listen to recordings. The Macaulay Library is also growing its high-definition video collection to aid in studies of animal behavior.

Building Electronic Ears

The engineers in the Cornell Lab’s Bioacoustics Research Program create remote recording devices used by researchers around the world. These autonomous recording units (ARUs) can be mounted in a forest or anchored to the ocean floor. ARUs have been used in the Elephant Listening Project in Africa, studies of whales, and in the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Lab engineers have also created sound-analysis software and are working on a new programmable radio tag to track birds and other animals for longer periods of time. The tags may even be used to follow migrating birds to the ends of the earth.

So Many Questions

The Cornell Lab’s scientists, students, and visiting scholars conduct original research. In the Evolutionary Biology laboratory, for example, researchers are extracting DNA from living birds or specimens to discover fascinating information about the relationships among species and their lifestyles.

The Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates is also housed in the Johnson Center, with 1,000,000 specimens of fish, 45,000 birds, 3,200 eggs, and 15,000 each of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Students and scientists use the specimens in their studies. The collection even includes historic specimens of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet.

Conservation Matters

Data collected about birds and animals are put to use in conserving birds and their habitats. The Bird Population Studies department takes raw data from research projects to extract trends and insights which become species-specific plans created by the Lab’s Conservation Science department. In addition to countless studies and published papers, the Lab has produced land managers’ guides aimed at conserving dwindling populations of Scarlet Tanagers, Wood Thrushes, and other forest birds. The Cornell Lab participated in creating the first-ever comprehensive State of the Birds Report for the U.S. Department of the Interior in March 2009 and is currently involved in efforts to study the impact of wind energy turbines on bird populations. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology guided the scientific arm of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-led search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004.

A Vision of the Future

Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says, “Our central goal is to promote environmentally sound decisions based on science. We strive to move human society toward investing in the permanent protection of natural systems all across our precious planet.” Fitzpatrick hopes to grow membership in the Lab so a critical mass of people “thinking globally and acting locally” may preserve the environment and its creatures, keeping this a world forever graced by the sight and the songs of birds.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology

All About Birds

Online course

Citizen science



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Copyright 2010, The Journal of Biocommunication, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents for VOLUME 35, NUMBER 3