Mission: Conservation

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Conservation

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology advances the conservation of birds and other wildlife through scientific research, technological innovation, and teaching.

We develop new tools and techniques to monitor the world’s rare and elusive species on land, sea, and in the air. We engage citizen-science participants in tracking the numbers and movements of birds across the hemisphere. In the laboratory and in the field, we conduct research and mentor students, training the next generation’s conservation leaders. With international partners, we work to protect the future of wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

Trusted by conservation organizations, government, and industries alike, we work with groups that are often on differing sides of environmental issues, providing the scientific data needed to make informed conservation decisions.

Project Highlights

Habitat Fragmentation and the Florida Scrub-Jay

The Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a federally threatened species restricted to remnant patches of oak scrub in Florida. Habitat fragmentation, development, and fire suppression have contributed to steep population declines of this species. We have used genetic techniques to learn about movement patterns, both past and present, between habitat patches across the scrub-jay's entire range. These analyses help wildlife managers preserve what remains of the genetic variation in this dwindling species, by translocating birds and preserving and restoring their habitat. We are also using genetic techniques to study why these jays are susceptible to periodic epidemics of viral disease.

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Birds and Climate Change

Climate has an enormous influence on where birds survive and reproduce. In the short term, weather can influence the timing of migration, territory establishment, breeding, and egg laying. Over the long term, species have adapted to seasonal weather trends. As global climate patterns change, many harbingers of spring are occurring earlier each year. We combine data from citizen-science projects with long-term data on weather to examine climate's role in the changes we are seeing in the ranges of some bird species, as well as the timing and outcomes of breeding.

Reproduction, Climate Change, and Songs of North American Warblers

Mike Webster, director of the Macaulay Library, graduate student Sara Kaiser, and collaborators at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are investigating how birds’ behaviors may change in response to climate change. The team studies Black-throated Blue Warblers to understand how changes in weather and food abundance affect reproductive hormones and behavior, and the prospects for the species’ long-term health. The study also uses recordings from the Macaulay Library to examine how song differences between populations may be leading to the splitting of this species in two.

Investigating Noise Pollution in the Ocean

In the underwater world, whales and many other animals rely on sound to communicate with one another. Yet the ocean is so noisy from shipping vessels, underwater energy exploration and development, sonar exploration, and other human activities that we are drowning out the sounds of whales. Right whales call to one another from 20 miles away or more, but scientists estimate that the area over which whales can hear one another has dropped by 90 percent because of noise pollution. The Bioacoustics Research Program is studying the responses of marine mammals to noise in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. In collaboration with international partners, we are also studying the role of noise pollution in the chain of events that lead to atypical mass strandings of beaked whales in the Bahamas.

The State of North America's Birds

2016 State of North America's Birds reportThis 2016 report is based on the first-ever conservation vulnerability assessment for all 1,154 native bird species that occur in Canada, the continental United States, and Mexico. Scientists and partners from all three countries found birds that are adaptable and can live in multiple habitats are faring well. But the report also measured steep declines in species that inhabit coasts, aridlands, and grasslands. Species found over the oceans and in tropical forests are in crisis.

Read the full report.

Saving Our Shared Birds: Partners in Flight Tri-National Vision

Partners in FlightTo protect the birds of North America, coordinated conservation action is needed in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the first document to recommend priorities for landbird conservation among these three nations, we produced Saving Our Shared Birds: The Partners in Flight Tri-National Vision for Bird Conservation (May 2010). The report involved collaboration with governments, conservation organizations, and academic institutions from the three countries, and highlights the linkages among nations and ecosystems upon which billions of migrant birds depend. The vision builds on the 2004 Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan for Canada and the United States.

Partnership Initiatives

The Cornell Lab provides leadership in national and international partnership initiatives, including the Partners in Flight Science Committee, Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, Cerulean Warbler Technical Group, and North American Bird Conservation Initiative.

Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative

We are working with partners to reverse the precipitous decline of Golden-winged Warblers, which have been extirpated from many areas because of habitat loss and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers. As part of the Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative, we have created a conservation strategy enabling state, federal, and private land managers in North and South America to manage habitat for Golden-winged Warblers and other species that depend on early successional habitats such as young forests. This strategy draws on monitoring, experimental management, and research to protect Golden-winged Warblers on their breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and during migration. It includes information from the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project, which engaged citizen-science participants in mapping the breeding range of Golden-winged Warblers. Primary funding is provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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Community Action Helps Endangered Sierra Madre Sparrows

One of the world’s most endangered birds, the Sierra Madre Sparrow, clings to existence in high-elevation native grasslands near Mexico City. The entire global population (estimated between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals) inhabits a combined area of 100 square miles. To secure these unprotected areas and the remaining population, we have been working with the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) and rural landowner communities (ejidos) to empower communities to manage land in ways that benefit the sparrows and other wildlife. These activities include restoring native grasses, training park guards, and developing a fire-management strategy. Rural communities of Milpa Alta region have established a protected area of nearly 5,000 hectares which they manage and protect.

Protecting 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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Listening to the Voices of Endangered Forest Elephants

In the dense forests of Central Africa, endangered forest elephants are difficult to study and protect because they are so difficult to see. We use sound-recording technology to listen for their vocalizations, giving us valuable information about their numbers, movements, and how they communicate with one another. We use this information to improve our understanding of elephants and to ensure their voices are heard in conservation decisions related to logging, hunting, and seismic exploration.

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Orange-breasted Falcon Research and Conservation

One of the least known falcons on the planet, Orange-breasted Falcons nest on steep cliffs where observing them is a challenge. With support from the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation, we are improving and expanding the database of Orange-breasted Falcon records, including museum specimens, published articles, and records from birders. In collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society Petén Program and the Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas, we also conducted an expedition to Tikal National Park in Guatemala to record the sounds of these rare falcons.

Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative

We are working with partners to reverse the precipitous decline of Golden-winged Warblers, which have been extirpated from many areas because of habitat loss and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers. As part of the Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative, we have created a conservation strategy enabling state, federal, and private land managers in North and South America to manage habitat for Golden-winged Warblers and other species that depend on early successional habitats such as young forests. This strategy draws on monitoring, experimental management, and research to protect Golden-winged Warblers on their breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and during migration. It includes information from the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project, which engaged citizen-science participants in mapping the breeding range of Golden-winged Warblers. Primary funding is provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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Hybridization as a Conservation Threat

blue-winged warbler researchThe Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) is declining precipitously, due in part to the expansion of the closely related Blue-winged Warbler (V. pinus) into its range. The incursion of blue-wings has led to widespread interbreeding between the two species, followed by the rapid disappearance of golden-wings. We are using genetic approaches to map the pattern of hybridization throughout the past and present range of Golden-winged Warblers. One objective of this survey is to identify the most genetically “pure” remaining golden-wing populations, which have special priority for conservation.

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.

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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.

Tracking Bird Migration in the Gulf of Mexico Region

Each spring and fall, hundreds of millions of birds embark on a 600-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. It is not just the numbers that are mind-boggling but the diversity of birds that make this journey, from Blue-winged Teal to Forster's Tern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo to Eastern Kingbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird to Scarlet Tanager, and many more. There is still much basic natural history we do not know about this specific migration. At what altitudes do the greatest densities of migrants occur as they cross the Gulf? How does migration traffic vary from year to year, from Key West to Brownsville? What effects do climatic patterns such as El Niño and the Arctic Oscillation have on the timing and location of peak passages of migrants? We are collaborating with the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Delaware, and Oklahoma University to study migration patterns in this region on weather surveillance radar as part of a project funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Southern Company. We are using technologies developed as part of the BirdCast project to study arrival and departure of migrants in the region, taking advantage of eBird data.

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 learn how how you can contribute your own recordings.

eBird

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.

Learn more

The Birds of North America

Birds of North AmericaThe Birds of North America is the preeminent source of life history information for more than 750 bird species that breed in the United States and Canada. Maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with the American Ornithological Society, this comprehensive resource is authored by experts on each species. Each species account includes information on systematics, distribution, identification, behavior, breeding biology, conservation, and a comprehensive bibliography. Content is compatible with mobile devices and includes significantly more photos, videos, and audio selections from the Lab's Macaulay Library--the world's largest scientific archive of biodiversity photos, audio, and video recordings.

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.

Tracking Long-Distance Migrants with Priority Migrant eBird

For many long-distance migrants that winter in Central or South America, we know surprisingly little about distribution and habitat needs outside the breeding season. Priority Migrant eBird encourages bird watchers to record their sightings of five high-priority Neotropical migrant bird species: Blue-winged, Canada, Cerulean, and Golden-winged warblers, and the Olive-sided Flycatcher. Data from wintering and migratory areas are urgently needed to inform range-wide conservation strategies for these declining species. Wherever you see these species, please report your observations on the Priority Migrant eBird 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.

Protecting 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.

Learn more

Recordings Help Endangered Bermuda Petrels

For nearly three centuries, Bermuda Petrels (Pterodroma cahow) were believed to be extinct. In 1951, this endangered species was rediscovered, and conservation efforts continue today. To help draw displaced or prospecting pairs to new nesting burrows on higher and safer ground, the restoration team used recordings of Bermuda Petrel vocalizations from the Macaulay Library to attract courting birds.

Conservation Training and Capacity Building in Mexico

To aid bird-monitoring efforts in Mexico, we helped establish the citizen-science project eBird (aVerAves), in collaboration with Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO). We are helping them implement the North American Breeding Bird Survey in Mexico, a critical step in expanding efforts to track bird populations across southern Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico. We also enable graduate students and professors from Mexican institutions to attend science and conservation workshops, such as our Bioacoustics and Sound Recording workshops.

Conservation Training and Capacity-Building in Guatemala

In Guatemala, we work to build local conservation capacity and foster biodiversity conservation in national and private protected areas. Our workshop, “Sound Recording Techniques for Biodiversity Monitoring," provided a life-transforming experience for 23 Guatemalan biologists from 14 institutions including universities, government agencies, conservation nonprofits, and private protected areas. Graduates are monitoring birds and other wildlife in locations including the Maya Biosphere Reserve and the highlands of Guatemala. Our work is supported by the Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas), and the San Carlos University of Guatemala.

Research and Conservation of Swallows Across the Hemisphere

As part of the Golondrinas de las Americas project led by Cornell professor David Winkler, we are studying swallows in the genus Tachycineta from Alaska to Argentina. A network of students and professors from across the Western Hemisphere enables us to monitor the effects of weather and insect density on breeding birds. We are also working to conserve poorly known, threatened species such as the Golden Swallow, Bahamas Swallow, and Tumbes Swallow. Our work is made possible by the National Science Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Conservation Training and Capacity-Building on Hispaniola

We advance sustainable long-term conservation on the island of Hispaniola by increasing local capacity, education, and expertise. We have taught workshops for more than 20 students from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, helping them learn research and conservation techniques such as mist netting, surveying, and radio telemetry. With partners, we forged an initiative in the Dominican Republic to combine economic incentives, protected areas, and forest habitat restoration to help Bicknell's Thrushes, a threatened species. We also foster the conservation of threatened Black-capped Petrels and other seabirds, and sent Haitian students to train with the National Audubon Seabird Restoration Program to help the students implement conservation measures in their own country. Our work is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Santo Domingo, and other partners.

Conservation Training and Capacity-Building in Cuba

Since 2002, we have worked with multiple institutions in Cuba to survey biodiversity in key protected areas and assist with conservation planning and bird monitoring. We have helped train more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students from 11 academic institutions in Cuba. We also support environmental education activities across the island. With our Cuban partners from the Oriental Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems (BIOECO), we have taught several workshops, including Sound Recording Techniques for Biodiversity Monitoring, Acoustic Analysis of Marine and Terrestrial Wildlife, and Ornithology (using the Cornell Lab's Handbook of Bird Biology). We also taught a field course in Conservation Biology. Our work in Cuba has been funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, and the Chicago Field Museum.

Graduate Student Research at the Cornell Lab

Cornell has been an academic leader in ornithology ever since Arthur Allen was appointed one of the nation's first professors of ornithology at the University, in 1917. The Cornell Lab is a nonacademic unit of Cornell University and does not award academic degrees, but our faculty regularly advise students through their joint appointments with other Cornell units.

We offer students a wealth of stimulating projects at undergraduate and graduate levels, and top-notch advice and collaboration from our scientists and members of their research labs. We also offer a productive environment for postdoctoral scholars. Please contact the following Cornell Lab scientists for information about the specific area you are interested in:

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