Back in 2010 a phrase occurred to me while describing to our board of directors the need to launch our Discover Campaign to raise capital for the Cornell Lab: “Honestly, the world could use a dozen laboratories of ornithology, but dang it, there sure as heck has to be at least one that is REALLY GREAT!”
The concept had legs, the campaign succeeded, and I have used that expression many times since (often with more colorful language). As we begin transitioning to a terrific new executive director, I am moved to reflect on why this statement is true. Exactly why is there a Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Why does the world need a really great one that keeps pushing to get better?
Earth happens to support almost exactly as many species of ants as birds (about 11,000), so it occurred to me to pose my question to the finest naturalist I know, the renowned entomologist and ant specialist Mark Deyrup at Florida’s Archbold Biological Station. Given the comparable numbers, why isn’t there a comparable Lab of Myrmecology? His answer was vintage Deyrup.
“Ants are, objectively, as interesting as birds, but their fan base is as tiny as they are,” Deyrup said. “Their beauty, diversity, and cool behavior are hidden behind their small size.”
Ant colonies are called “superorganisms” because they function as a collective whole made up of thousands of individuals. But, as Deyrup put it, “a bug that is part of a superorganism is still just a bug.”
“Birds, on the other hand, occupy a sweet spot,” he said. “Big enough to be easily observed, but small enough so there is room in the world for a lot of them and a lot of diversity.”
Then he mused about the way humans perceive birds. Bird behaviors and calls “extend human awareness far beyond our own senses in a natural world, so it is adaptive to pay attention to birds,” Deyrup said. “Listening to birds can tell us important, even vital things about our immediate environment…who ever heard of a hamster in a coal mine?
“Whatever the evolutionary reasons,” he concluded, “personal passion for birds evolves from our accumulated individual relationships with them. This passion goes way beyond any simple adaptive responses and for most of us becomes increasingly altruistic.”
This last point especially hit home for me. Birds are attractive enough, active enough, diverse enough, ubiquitous enough, but also vulnerable enough to draw us outside of ourselves, to care for their lives, to think about their world.
We appreciate instinctively how glorious it is that our world is populated by such creatures as hummingbirds and ostriches, toucans and penguins, cardinals and vultures. Captured through the ages in poetry and song, bird migrations connect us with the Earth’s annual heartbeat. Birds show us stewards of the Earth what we are doing right, and they inspire us to fight against what we are doing wrong.
The world needs a great laboratory of ornithology because birds have immense power to draw us out, to respect and care for the needs of individual lives outside of our own. Even as they serve our senses, stir our wonder, and teach us about nature, birds inspire us to act nobly. Our job—the Lab’s job—is to do everything we possibly can to connect people everywhere with all this power. The world would indeed be much poorer without a great place dedicated to this job.
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