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View from Sapsucker Woods: A Farewell from Fitz

By John W. Fitzpatrick
John & Molly Fitzpatrick. Photo courtesy of John Fitzpatrick.
John & Molly Fitzpatrick. Photo courtesy of John Fitzpatrick.

From the Summer 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Bidding proper farewell in 600 words is not easy, especially after 26 years. Directing the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been an extraordinary and fun privilege, transforming often as our growth opened new horizons, technology afforded new opportunities, and conservation crises presented daunting challenges. Building on the solid foundation established by my predecessor, Charlie Walcott, we first strived for critical mass, then found our voice, ringing in the new millennium with transformational strategic plans and attitudes that we express to this day.

Interpret and conserve earth’s biological diversity. Embrace citizen science, digital technology, and entrepreneurship. Bring together evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, conservation science, bioacoustics, public engagement, and the foremost wildlife archive within a spectacular science building at Sapsucker Woods. Welcome undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs into our expanding community. Provide birders and lifelong learners worldwide with tools and resources for engaging with nature. Nurture the symbioses between science and art. Inspire conservation through the power of birds, data science, and great storytelling. Serve the land-grant mission of a great university by focusing on issues and opportunities for impact at global scales. Above all keep exploring, embrace experimentation, and do not be afraid to fail.

The best nonprofits have unbending commitment to mission, and I have been blessed beyond words to be surrounded by people passionately committed to ours. I am grateful to have learned from—and leaned on—a remarkable community of accomplished members of our administrative board ranging from business leaders and conservation professionals to scientists, museum presidents, and even an awesome jazz composer. These individuals believe in what we strive to achieve, and have given selflessly of their time, expertise, wisdom, networks, and resources to help the Lab flourish. The uniquely close chemistry between our board and our staff is a treasure to be cherished and nurtured. I am indebted to the Lab’s leadership and staff past and present, for their passion, incredibly hard work, commitment to mission, acceptance of personal responsibility for success of the whole endeavor, and tolerance of my mistakes and foibles along the way. They have all taught me so much.

You, our supporting members, earn my most humble and heartfelt words of gratitude. In 1995 you numbered in the thousands. Today you number in the hundreds of thousands. Everything we’ve built, the horizons we’ve encountered, the tools and scientific advances we’ve contributed to the world, the communities and cultures we’ve touched—all that we are, we owe to you. Thank you for your belief in and financial support of this unique enterprise. We could not be doing all this without you.

Celebrating Fitz's Career

The Lab’s impacts have broadened considerably over the years, yet I still regard it as an experiment being tested: a community-supported, globally focused, mission-driven science institute committed to research, academic training, biodiversity conservation, and public engagement in nature, all imbedded in a land-grant college at a great research university. It is an extraordinary and unique model, and the experiment proceeds. Our biggest challenge going forward is to expand our influence by diversifying the communities we touch. We must keep exploring how to use the powers of birds and other charismatic organisms to help humans flourish side by side with intact and functioning natural systems. I am thrilled to pass the baton to Ian Owens for our next lap in this amazing run. I’ll do everything I can to help him and his superb staff achieve new successes.

I close with special thanks to Molly, my soulmate, dearest companion of nearly 40 years, and mother of Sarah and Dylan, both now 30-somethings launched on their own amazing journeys. Molly has filled my life with love, joy, friendships, and adventure. She also has sacrificed in countless ways that afforded me time, focus, travel, public engagement, and all the other obsessions that I’ve invested into this job. It has been a heck of a run.

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