A Bold Experiment: Founding the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

By John W. Fitzpatrick
From the Winter 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.
January 15, 2015
The opening of the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity in 2003 marked a major new era for the Cornell Lab, providing a home for 12 diverse programs, a staff of nearly 200, a world-class visitor center, laboratories, a research museum, and droves of extraordinary students. Photo by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes. The opening of the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity in 2003 marked a major new era for the Cornell Lab, providing a home for 12 diverse programs, a staff of nearly 200, a world-class visitor center, laboratories, a research museum, and droves of extraordinary students. Photo by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes.
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One hundred years ago, the idea of a “laboratory of ornithology” was an experiment, born during an intense period of environmental, cultural, and scientific transformation. A world war was brewing. The last Passenger Pigeon had just died, Carolina Parakeets were gone from the wild, and Heath Hens were on a bumpy descent toward extinction. Egrets of several species seemed headed for the same grim fate because of rampant plume hunting. Ornithology was still mainly the purview of collectors and museum curators who used bird specimens to document distributions, determine species limits, and argue with one another about bird classifications.

Enter young Arthur Allen, whose Cornell University Ph.D. dissertation, Redwinged Blackbirds: A Study in the Ecology of a Cattail Marsh, was novel. Scientists were just beginning to study relationships among living organisms in their wild landscapes, and the word “Ökologie” had been coined in Germany just a few decades earlier. Ecology was by no means a household term when Allen used it to characterize his thesis. His work earned him a professorial appointment in Cornell’s Department of Entomology, where—at the suggestion of the department chair—Allen posted the words “Laboratory of Ornithology” to clarify his unusual specialty. Behind this door was a scientist who practiced and taught ornithology, not as a study of specimens, but of living birds doing their daily business in the field. Nearly five decades later, Allen would pen the inaugural article for the Lab’s brand new journal, appropriately called The Living Bird.

Allen recognized that two key attributes of living birds warranted establishment of a “Laboratory” dedicated to their study. First, their striking and easily observable diversity in form, color, song, social behavior, migration, and habitat endows birds with enormous value as scientific models, inviting rigorous study at scales from local to hemispheric. Many of today’s bedrock principles of ecology, evolution, behavior, and resource management were established through the study of birds. Beginning with Allen, and enduring for 100 years, professors and students at Cornell have been major contributors to these disciplines. The Lab of Ornithology became a galvanizing scientific force. Second, more than any other life form, birds incite passions for nature among people from all walks of life. Allen led bird walks and gave public lectures throughout his career, and in 1951 published the landmark book, Stalking Birds with Color Camera, which induced countless nonscientists to take up the hobby.

A few years later, Allen partnered with Peter Paul Kellogg and Roger Tory Peterson to produce an LP record showcasing the growing collection of bird songs recorded and archived by the Cornell Lab. Just as Peterson’s field guides helped expand bird watching as a popular hobby, A Field Guide to Bird Songs introduced thousands of people—including me, as a youngster in rural Minnesota—to the intriguing concept of a “Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.”

Opening the observatory at Sapsucker Woods in 1957 established the Cornell Lab as an institute possessing a captivating karma. Here at a major research university, professors and students had an idyllic setting for conducting research and exchanging ideas, and a gathering place where the general public could watch birds, attend seminars, and mingle with scientists. Today, this same union of science, training, and communication under pins everything we do, even as our scope and aspirations have expanded well beyond what our forebears imagined.

The 2003 opening of our magnificent Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity marked a major new era for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For the first time, the Lab could supply ample office space, research and teaching labs, and meeting facilities to accommodate a burgeoning staff and 12 programs in science, education, and communication. As a result, Cornell undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows of remarkable breadth and diversity flock through our doors, stimulating our productivity and uniting every one of the Lab’s professionals with the extraordinary intellectual and cultural community encompassed by Cornell University. Explosive growth of digital technology and the Internet Age greatly expand our platforms for reaching, teaching, and inspiring new audiences. Hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists around the world partner with specialists at the Lab, fueling today’s heady new era of big-data bird study. Tens of millions visit our websites each year, making the Cornell Lab a veritable 21st-century museum.

For this experiment to succeed, the Lab must remain grounded in basic and applied scientific research. We use birds and other charismatic organisms (e.g., whales and elephants) as windows into how nature works. Because birds are such important indicators of environmental conditions, we emphasize mapping and monitoring their populations as an ongoing priority, promoting citizen science and developing sophisticated analytical techniques to carry out these studies. As a connecting force between people and nature, birds can be powerful agents of change by illuminating conservation pathways and motivating people to pursue those paths. For this reason, we record nature in multiple modalities and use these recordings to craft stories that illuminate and motivate.

We remain based at Sapsucker Woods, but our geographic scope in the 21st century is global. We are fortunate to be a unit of Cornell University, one of the greatest research environments in the world, attracting some of the best scholars and communicators in our fields. Our students and postdocs represent tomorrow’s leaders in biodiversity sciences, and they conduct studies on every continent. Our Macaulay Library archives media from across the planet, and our Multimedia group produces visually stunning stories having worldwide consequence. To stay at the forefront of citizen science means keeping abreast of dizzying changes in technology. Using interactive websites and mobile platforms, we aspire to “be in everyone’s back pocket,” harnessing the power of birds to engage with cultures all over the world.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology remains a bold experiment: a research-and-training center on one hand and a communications hub on the other, with an overarching mission of biodiversity conservation. Capitalizing on the structures and traditions of an Ivy League university, we speak with, and answer to, a global audience concerned with the challenges of a rapidly changing planet.

We measure success as much by inspiration as by technical publication. Both goals are essential for delivering conservation impacts that improve the outlook for wild things and wild places— the very essence of what steered Arthur Allen a century ago.