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In the quest to understand nature, Cornell Lab scientists use cutting-edge technology to reveal secrets hidden in DNA, document rare wildlife, and discover how animals survive and communicate in a changing world.
A renowned center for bird study for nearly a century, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an exciting place where scientists and students investigate a diversity of topics and organisms (not just birds!). We enjoy a rich network of intellectual interaction among our community here, on the Cornell campus, and at collaborating institutions worldwide.
The Cornell Lab is a non-profit organization, with 99% of our support provided by members of the Lab, grants, and contracts. We are also a proud unit of Cornell University, which provides a wealth of academic resources and collaborations.
The Cornell Lab combines the best of a nonprofit environmental organization with scientific research of the highest standards, focused on our mission to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity.
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.
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
Susan Spear/Cornell Lab
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.
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.
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.
Birds and Climate Change
David O. Brown/ML
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.
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.
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.
House Finch Eye Disease
In the winter of 1993–1994, people in the Washington, D.C., area began seeing House Finches at their bird feeders with a strange new disease. The area around the finches’ eyes was red and swollen, and in some cases the birds had become blind. The cause of the disease was identified as a common bacterial pathogen of domestic poultry. The bacteria had unexpectedly mutated and jumped to House Finches. Within three years, roughly 60% of House Finches in eastern North America were dead. The disease has persisted since then, and House Finch numbers have yet to recover completely. Bird Population Studies researchers developed a citizen-science monitoring program called the House Finch Disease Survey to document the spread of the disease and used additional citizen-science data to describe its impacts. Further work investigated why the pathogen has been so successful and the disease so persistent. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the ecology of other diseases in other organisms, including humans. This work involves close collaboration with researchers at five universities.
Genetics and House Finch Eye Disease
In the winter of 1994, people around Washington, D.C., began noticing House Finches with severe eye lesions caused by a bacterium called Mycoplasma gallisepticum. Within three years, this infection spread throughout House Finch populations east of the Rocky Mountains and killed many of them. We contribute to long-term studies of this epidemic by performing DNA-based diagnostics on samples taken from wild birds, and by studying the genetic diversity of House Finches in relation to their susceptibility to this disease. Among our findings is the discovery that the introduced population of House Finches in eastern North America is substantially less genetically diverse than the native population in western North America. We are also deciphering the evolutionary relationships between numerous strains of Mycoplasma, helping us learn where this infectious strain may have come from when it jumped into the House Finch population.
Evan Barbour/Cornell Lab
Past students working in the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Lab have investigated the ecology of avian malaria. These studies have surveyed the host distributions of particular avian malaria species and tested the ability of particular mosquito species to transmit avian malaria among hosts.
Black-throated Blue Warbler(Dendroica caerulescens)—New Hampshire
Climate change is predicted to increase environmental variation. In species that engage in extra-pair copulations, adverse weather could cause males to spend less time and effort looking for mates, and reduce the incidence of extra-pair paternity. But the effects of weather on reproductive behavior remain poorly understood. We are examining the influence of weather on rates of extra-pair paternity in Black-throated Blue Warblers along an elevational gradient with a range of climatic conditions.
Cooperative Breeding: Acorn Woodpeckers
The remarkable Acorn Woodpecker of western North America lives in family groups of up to 15 individuals of both sexes and all ages. These permanent groups defend a territory together, store food together, and cooperate to raise young. For more than 30 years, Walter Koenig has studied individually marked Acorn Woodpeckers in central coastal California. Life in these groups is complicated, but it leads to an interplay of cooperation and competition that makes Acorn Woodpeckers unique in the avian world. Several related males compete to mate with several breeding females, all of whom lay their eggs in a single nest cavity. Offspring from these joint nests help raise the group's young for up to several years. Acorn Woodpeckers are also highly dependent on acorns, which they store, often by the thousands, in storage trees or granaries. This dependence provides much of the motivation for our Population Synchrony: Acorn Production by California Oaks study.
Population Synchrony: Acorn Production by California Oaks
Bureau of Land Management
Oaks are well known “masting” species—acorn production varies greatly from year to year, but is highly synchronized among trees. As a result, in good acorn years there is a bounty of acorns over a wide area, while in a poor year few if any are produced. Acorns are a critical food for many kinds of wildlife, including Acorn Woodpeckers. Walter Koenig leads a team in surveying acorn production across California and conducts a detailed study of oaks in central coastal California. His aim is to understand variability in acorn production, including why productivity differs, how far synchrony in acorn production extends, and what effects the variability has for California’s wildlife.
Documenting Courtship Behavior of New Guinea’s Birds of Paradise
For more than a decade, video curator Edwin Scholes has used digital video to document and study the courtship behaviors of New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise (family Paradisaeidae). In collaboration with wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, this project has grown to become the most comprehensive collection of bird-of-paradise video footage in the world.
Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens)—Florida
When molecular tools first showed that most birds mate with others besides their social mate, it came as a great surprise. Twenty years later, the discovery of a truly monogamous species is the surprise that begs explanation. The Florida Scrub-Jay is one such rare example. We are exploring whether this species deviates from monogamy in some parts of its range, which might help us to understand why genetic monogamy occurs in the first place.
Sexual Signals in Australian Fairywrens
In a collaborative study, Mike Webster, director of the Macaulay Library, studies the evolution of sexual signals in Australian fairywrens. The study aims to reveal how social and ecological environments interact to determine the plumage signals that males display during breeding, and how hormonal mechanisms maintain these plumage ornaments as honest signals of male health and condition. Graduate student Jenélle Dowling is further examining the role of male and female song in mating behavior, especially the information that song conveys to other birds and how females use song to select mates. Graduate student Dan Baldassarre is studying the evolutionary forces that lead to divergence in sexual signals across populations and the role that this might play in generating new species.
Citizen-Science Research on Bird Diversity, Distribution, and Abundance
Understanding changes in the distribution and abundance of populations is difficult because birds are so mobile and most species are widely distributed. In addition, fluctuations in food supplies or other changes in resources can cause local fluctuations that may not reflect broader patterns. Are populations really changing, or have the birds simply moved elsewhere? What effect do invasive, nonnative birds have on native bird communities? Do birds move in predictable patterns? These questions can only be answered by gathering observations across large spatial scales over long periods of time. Citizen-science programs such as Project FeederWatch are invaluable for collecting consistent information at spatial and temporal scales necessary to answer these questions. Using a hypothesis-testing approach to explore questions of importance to bird conservation, citizen-science researchers use long-term data, cross-validation with other surveys, and modern statistical approaches to detect patterns, investigate mechanisms, and understand changes.
Behavioral Ecology of Western Bluebirds
Citizen science researcher Janis Dickinson leads a long-term study of Western Bluebirds focusing on cooperative breeding, sexual selection, and behavioral decision-making. For example, she has asked how territory quality, social environment, and individual characteristics influence life decisions—including how the survival and reproduction of young birds is affected by mistletoe wealth and living with parents. Graduate student Caitlin Stern is conducting experiments to examine the cryptic costs and benefits of living near a diversity of relatives during the breeding season. Another study focuses on mating behaviors. Like many songbird species, Western Bluebirds are socially monogamous and essentially mate for life, but nearly half the time females lay eggs that are sired by males other than the social father. Postdoctoral associate Elise Donnelly Ferree has used microsatellite DNA fingerprinting to explore the benefits of extra-pair mating for males and females, the age and plumage characteristics of individuals that are successful in extra-pair mating, and whether offspring sired by the social father or an outside male differ in survival, reproductive success, and future mating behavior. The research on Western Bluebirds is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.
Understanding the Origins of Biodiversity
We are exploring the process of speciation and how it is influenced by ecological factors and biological traits. Some species have patchy distributions, with areas of suitable habitat separated by uninhabitable areas. Are populations of these species more prone to diversify because of their physical isolation? Are sedentary populations more likely to diverge than those that are more mobile? When are differences in mating tactics and behaviors great enough to result in speciation? To investigate these questions, we gather information about the degree of genetic differentiation among populations, along with ecological and life-history data. Ongoing projects focus on the recent colonization of South America by breeding Barn Swallows, the effect of habitat on genetic divergence in cichlid fish and snails in Lake Tanganyika, Africa, and the influence of mate choice strategies on population differentiation in Australian fairywrens.
Understanding the Maintenance of Biodiversity
In addition to investigating the origins of diversity, we explore how closely related species maintain their uniqueness. When two species interbreed, they may produce offspring that look, sound, and act intermediate between the parent species. So why, despite this occasional hybridization, do most species remain distinct? We are investigating the genetic reasons for this in pairs of species that often hybridize, such as Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles, and Indigo and Lazuli buntings.
Pat Leonard/Cornell Lab
By examining "ancient DNA," or DNA from old specimens, we can ask fascinating questions about extinct species or populations. But working with ancient DNA is technically demanding because degradation sets in soon after an animal's death. The Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program includes a dedicated ancient-DNA lab that we use when working with old or degraded specimens. We have successfully retrieved and analyzed old genetic material ranging from bird museum skins collected in the 1800s, to 5,000-year-old plant material recovered from receding glaciers in the Andes. Ancient DNA techniques also enable us to study materials from places that are difficult to access, and to examine the genetics of extremely rare, protected, or extinct species.
Evolution of Variation in Life Histories of Birds
We investigate reasons why the pace of life among birds varies so consistently with latitude. These patterns include slower metabolism and embryonic development, smaller clutches, and longer incubation periods in tropical birds than in their cousins at high latitudes. Most researchers have examined biotic explanations, such as differing food availability or predation rates. We focus on non-biological factors like differences in temperature and day length between the tropics and the temperate zone. Poultry scientists have pioneered understanding how temperature and photoperiod affect the physiology and development of birds. Following their lead, we take a tiered approach to investigate how incubation in wild birds is influenced by temperature and photoperiod. In turn, we study how local incubation patterns affect embryo development. We analyze data from citizen-science programs, such as NestWatch, and the NSF-funded Golondrinas de las Americas network, consisting of study sites focused on Tachycineta swallows across the Western Hemisphere.
How Many Genes Does It Take to Make a Good Evolutionary Tree?
Many questions remain about how best to uncover evolutionary relationships among species. This is partly because a phylogenetic tree resolved from a single gene sequence will differ somewhat from trees of other genes sampled from the same species. We are exploring this problem by analyzing many genes from small groups of birds such as North American chickadees. These studies help us better understand the relationships of these birds and how best to deploy our laboratory and analytical resources.
The Wood-Warbler Tree of Life
Our work on the evolutionary tree of the wood-warblers has yielded information on when and how this group of songbirds diversified. We have used this information to explore why some warbler species occur together in breeding communities, whereas others compete so strongly that they don't co-occur. We have shown that some wood-warbler lineages appeared rapidly early on in the group’s evolution, but diversification declined thereafter. This supports the idea that wood-warbler communities arose via “adaptive radiation” in which speciation slows as ecological niches fill. We have also taken an evolutionary approach to studying the life history, migration, and ecology of warbler species. We've found that warbler species living in taller trees or more open forest canopies tend to have higher frequency flight calls.