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View from Sapsucker Woods: Birds of the World Is Born

By John W. Fitzpatrick
Double-eyed Fig-Parrot by Mat Gilfedder/Macaulay Library.

From the Winter 2020 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Among my earliest commitments when I became director of the Cornell Lab in 1994 was to expand the services both to scholarly ornithology and to the vital bridges connecting the scholarly and popular sides of our discipline. Many of our projects over the past 25 years reflect these objectives, including our involvement with Birds of North America, management of its online version, creation of eBird as a global enterprise, development of Bird Academy, and digitization of Macaulay Library archives to permit public browsing. Today we are thrilled to announce the launch, in early 2020, of another major ornithological milestone, Birds of the World, a marriage of previously discrete resources into one comprehensive and colorful hub.

The historic 1992 launch of BNA as a hard-copy production yielded scholarly biographies compiled by hundreds of experts and painstakingly edited by a small, Philadelphia-based staff. The Cornell Lab joined the BNA consortium in 1998 and later assumed its management under the leadership of its longtime editor, Alan Poole. Over the years accounts have been revised and linked to media from the Macaulay Library and eBird, and new editing tools have facilitated ongoing revisions. The online BNA now reaches thousands of subscribers worldwide, and its tropical sister, Neotropical Birds, is available to everyone for free. [UPDATE 2/8/22: Birds of North America and Neotropical Birds have now been merged with Birds of the World.]

Malayan Banded-Pitta by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library
Malayan Banded-Pitta by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library.

With the 1992 appearance of Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks, a visionary country doctor named Josep del Hoyo, and his Catalonia-based Lynx Edicions, declared an outrageous goal: an exhaustive, illustrated compendium of the taxonomy, distribution, and biology of all 10,500+ bird species, compiled by the world’s top bird authorities. The project seemed too ambitious to complete, doomed to collapse of its own weight. I was among the many ornithologists to doubt the feasibility of such a massive undertaking, but I was wrong. By strength of graceful but unrelenting persuasiveness, Josep patiently harnessed the time and expertise of hundreds of ornithologists, myself included, to produce an epic scientific milestone. The last of 17 volumes appeared in 2014, followed by an extra volume summarizing the world’s 243 bird families, copublished with the Cornell Lab.

And now, the exciting marriage announcement: the Cornell Lab has acquired from Lynx Edicions the exclusive digital rights to all the content of Handbook of the Birds of the World. Integrating all these assets with those of BNA, Neotropical Birds, eBird, and Macaulay Library has allowed us to produce an extraordinary new web portal under the capable leadership of former eBird project leader Brian Sullivan. Birds of the World presents a vast but accessible array of information about every species, subspecies, and family of the world’s birds. Accounts include images, sounds, and videos—including thousands from Lynx’s Internet Bird Collection—plus all the stunning illustrations from the Handbook volumes, maps and animations from eBird, and authoritative text from all of the component projects. We will maintain the site as a living system, engaging a huge network of collaborators around the world to help keep species accounts current with new text, media, updated literature references, distributional changes, and taxonomic updates.

True to the Cornell Lab’s founding objective to bridge scientific ornithology with the popular appeal of birds and birding, our newest hub is nothing short of “bird diversity at your fingertips.” We invite you and the world to participate.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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