Mission: Technology

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Technical innovation has been a hallmark of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology since 1929, when Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen and colleagues used motion picture film to capture the first sound recordings of North American birds.

Cornell engineers later developed the parabolic microphone and portable tape recorder, enabling people to record animals around the world. Many of these recordings are archived in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, today the world’s largest collection of natural sounds.

This spirit of innovation and exploration live on today, as our scientists, engineers, and computer programmers invent new tools to understand the natural world and protect wildlife.

Project Highlights

Data Resources and Exploration

We design powerful tools to create digital data resources and make them widely available for scientific research, education, and personal enjoyment.

The Macaulay Library's Online Archive of Biodiversity Media

We are building the world’s most comprehensive online archive of audio and video recordings of animal biodiversity. This online database can be used to explore the largest collection of avian vocal diversity in the world, to search for recordings of a given species, or to find scientific information about animal behavior and species occurrences in space and time. Explore the online archive, or contact us to find out how you can contribute your own recordings.


eBird offers innovative online tools for birders to keep track of their own lists and contribute their bird sightings for use in science and conservation. Birders, scientists, and conservationists can collect, manage, and store their observations in eBird’s globally accessible database—or use graphing, mapping, and analysis tools to better understand patterns of bird occurrence and the environmental and human factors that influence them. This real-time data resource produces millions of observations per year from across the hemisphere. eBird is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

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The Birds of North America Online

Birds of North American OnlineThe Birds of North America Online is a comprehensive reference that details the life histories of the more than 700 species of birds that breed in North America. Species profiles include 20–30 pages of life history information, plus image galleries, videos, and sound recordings. The original print version, published in 2002, was 18,000 pages—a joint 10-year project of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Academy of Natural Sciences. Today, The Birds of North America Online is a living resource, frequently updated by contributions from researchers, citizen scientists, and designated reviewers and editors.

Neotropical Birds

Birds of Neotropical Birds OnlineNeotropical Birds is an innovative collaboration of researchers, birders, and the conservation community to create an authoritative online resource with life histories of Neotropical birds from Mexico and the Caribbean to South America. Learn more about birds south of the border and consider contributing your own information, sounds, video, or translations.

Avian Knowledge Network

Avian Knowledge NetworkWith more than 100 million bird observations online, the Avian Knowledge Network has amassed the world’s single largest collection of data on species occurrence. Made possible by collaborations with international experts and institutions, the Avian Knowledge Network organizes data and makes them widely accessible. The goals include educating the public about the dynamics of bird populations, providing interactive decision-making tools for land managers and advancing new exploratory analysis techniques to study bird populations. Learn more on the Avian Knowledge Network website.

Advances in Species Distribution Modeling

Why do birds occur where they do? And why do the distributions of some species change through time? This information is crucial for conservation of bird populations, but current methods of analyzing spatiotemporal dynamics are unreliable. We developed a modeling framework that allows researchers to incorporate time- and region-specific elements into a predictive analysis. The resulting models are called spatiotemporal exploratory models, or STEMs, which can be used to study how populations respond over time to broad-scale changes in their environments—for example, changes in land-use patterns, pollution patterns, or climate change. Using STEMs, we will be able to systematically map and monitor changes in migration flyways, providing necessary information to develop conservation strategies for migratory species. We expect STEMs to have a broad and important impact in ecology and conservation.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Begun in 1998, the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count was the first citizen-science program to collect and display bird observation data online on a large scale. Today, the Great Backyard Bird Count is one of the most popular annual events among bird watchers. It has been merged with the eBird online checklist program to make the information gathered even more useful to science and to allow people to take part anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada.

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Science Pipes

SciencePipes.org is an interactive website where students, educators, citizens, resource managers, and scientists can create and share analyses and visualizations of biodiversity data. It supports inquiry-based learning, allowing users to analyze results and incorporate visualizations on other websites, such as blogs.

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Sound Recording and Analysis

We develop automated sound-recording equipment and software enabling scientists to monitor rare and elusive animals.

Creating Automated Devices for Recording Animal Sounds

We develop the technology to remotely record the sounds of animals on land or in the ocean. Our underwater “pop-up” devices record sounds from the ocean floor, then pop up to the surface when the data are ready to be retrieved. Researchers have used pop-ups in more than 20 countries worldwide to monitor the sounds of marine wildlife as well as human-caused noise pollution.

In collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we developed an auto-detection buoy system to detect vocalizing right whales in near real-time. This enables us to notify ships of the presence of whales within a 5 nautical mile listening range of the buoy, alerting them to slow down and avoid deadly collisions with these endangered whales.

To record the sounds of animals on land, we developed devices that can be programmed and left in remote locations to record the sounds of rare and elusive wildlife for months at a time. We have used these devices to monitor endangered forest elephants, to detect the presence of endangered Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers, and to document the calls of migratory songbirds as they migrate overhead at night.

Developing Digital Tools to Analyze Animal Sounds

We create software applications for biologists and the interested public to visually display, measure, and analyze sounds. With support from the National Science Foundation, we created Raven and Raven Lite, powerful user-friendly research and teaching tools for understanding sounds. We also created the XBAT sound analysis application to enable scientists with diverse needs to analyze large-scale data sets recorded on land or under water. We have used XBAT to study the dawn chorus of birds, to listen for endangered right whales, and to explore the effects of underwater noise on humpback whales.

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Acoustic Technologies for Monitoring Bird Migration

Most songbird migration happens at night, when it’s hard to detect. With durable, autonomous recording devices pre-programmed to run for months at a time in remote sites, we gather information about the timing, location, and species composition of nocturnal bird migration. These audio recordings describe massive movements of migrating birds and they represent data that are unavailable by any other methodology. The recordings are crucial for conservation plans for migratory species. Andrew Farnsworth and colleagues developed a “Rosetta Stone” for the calls of 48 warbler species. Using remote microphone and analysis software, the team can identify birds flying overhead in darkness, yielding new information about migration over military bases, planned wind farms, and other locations. We have processed tens of thousands of acoustic recordings of more than 200 species of birds. Cornell Lab scientists have also developed sophisticated software enabling them to monitor Whip-poor-wills and other elusive species.

Online Tools for Acoustic Analysis

Cornell Lab engineers have developed technology with enormous capacity for recording and storing bird sounds. A major challenge is to match our ability to gather recordings with the ability to analyze and make use of them. We are developing web-based tools that will allow anyone connected to the Internet to examine such recordings from any place at any time. The work, funded by the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, will help accelerate bioacoustics research and will allow acoustic monitoring of migratory birds at offshore wind facilities.

The Macaulay Library's Online Archive of Biodiversity Media

We are building the world’s most comprehensive online archive of audio and video recordings of animal biodiversity. This online database can be used to explore the largest collection of avian vocal diversity in the world, to search for recordings of a given species, or to find scientific information about animal behavior and species occurrences in space and time. Explore the online archive, or contact us to find out how you can contribute your own recordings.

Saving the World’s Last North Atlantic Right Whales

We use our high-tech systems to hear, monitor, and protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. Fewer than 500 of these magnificent animals remain in the world, and they are difficult to see and track as they migrate along the Atlantic seaboard. Our sound-detection systems provide valuable information about the whales’ numbers, locations, and activities along the East Coast. We use this information to understand how whales are affected by disturbance and noise pollution from energy exploration, shipping, and other human activities, and to advise industry and government on how to minimize harm to marine wildlife. In collaboration with other research agencies and the energy industry, we have established a right whale listening network in Massachusetts Bay. This network notifies shipping vessels to slow down when right whales are detected nearby, preventing deadly collisions between whales and ships.

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Tracking Devices

We explore new ways to create devices that track animals across long distances.

Generating New Lightweight Tags to Track Bird Migrations

In collaboration with a group of international scientists, we are developing very small radio frequency tags to track birds over great distances. Currently the tags utilize computers that record sunrise and sunset data that can be used to calculate the location of the bird. The data can be downloaded from the tag without capturing the bird.

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Tracking Night Migrants Across the Gulf of Mexico

Each spring and fall, hundreds of millions of birds embark on a 600-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico—even tiny thrushes, warblers, and hummingbirds. Ornithologists have been interested in these trans-Gulf migrations for decades, but it has proved very difficult to track such small birds over such huge distances. We are collaborating with researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi, University of Illinois, and Illinois Natural History Survey to deploy a “virtual fence” of automated radio-telemetry antennas and receivers across the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Field workers on the U.S. Gulf Coast (Alabama) attach tiny radio-tags to birds as they migrate through; the receivers along the Yucatan coast relocate them as they arrive, noting where and when each individual makes landfall. In 2009, the Conservation Science program deployed seven autonomous recording units to the Yucatán coast to assist in this cutting-edge monitoring study.

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