Mission: Conservation

How You Can Help

We rely on your support to further our mission to understand birds and other wildlife, to involve the public in scientific discovery, and to use our knowledge to protect our planet.

Sign Up for eNews

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

Human Impacts

We aid conservation efforts by advancing the understanding of how ecosystems are affected by human-caused change, including habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, and energy development.

Birds and Habitat Fragmentation

Fragmented landscapes, in which natural habitat exists as isolated patches, are a common side-effect of human activities. We study the effects of fragmentation with the help of citizen-science participants. Our Birds in Forested Landscapes project involved volunteer birders at 3,800 sites across North America. The project yielded valuable insights about habitat fragmentation and factors such as occupancy by birds and local extinction rates. Results were published in scientific journals including the Journal of Animal Ecology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Ecology and Society. The results have also been compiled into guidelines for land managers interested in conservation of tanagers and forest thrushes.

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.

Learn more

Effects of PCBs on Bird Song

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are worldwide chemical pollutants to which bird populations may be especially sensitive. Even at low concentrations, PCBs cause neurological damage and mimic estrogen activity, thereby altering sexual development and reproduction. Hormonal balance plays a key role in bird song, so it might be possible to monitor PCB exposure by studying songbirds. To test this hypothesis, researcher Sara DeLeon recorded songs and collected blood and feather samples from Black-capped Chickadees and Song Sparrows along a gradient of PCB contamination along the Hudson River in New York. Her preliminary results suggest that nonlethal levels of PCBs in the environment do affect bird song, a finding with implications for wild birds in polluted landscapes.

Assessing Pollution Risk and Forest Health

We are working with scientists from The Nature Conservancy in the Catskill Mountains of New York to quantify pollution risk and forest health. Trained volunteers gather data at 60 forest sites in the Catskills as part of a long-term monitoring project. We're also teaming with the Wildlife Conservation Society and other institutions to formally assess the risk posed by mercury deposition to New York biota. A report of this work can be found in the 2008 biennial report of the New York State Biodiversity Research Institute, p. 21 [Download PDF].

Effects of Acid Rain and Mercury on Birds

Led by scientist Stefan Hames, we are studying the biochemical pathways by which acid rain and mercury deposition reduce the availability of calcium, an important nutrient for nesting birds and their eggs. Data collected by participants in the Birds in Forested Landscapes citizen-science project indicated that Wood Thrushes are less likely to breed at sites heavily impacted by acid rain; the absence of high-calcium prey may be the cause. Further pollution research focuses on mercury contamination in birds, a condition that is surprisingly pervasive in upland habitats, particularly in combination with acid rain. With support from the Leon Levy Foundation, our researchers are developing a model of mercury contamination in New York forests and identifying regions and birds at high risk, including Wood Thrushes and Red-eyed Vireos.

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.

Assessing the Impact of Wind Energy Development on Bird Populations

Wind power is a much-needed source of alternative energy, yet even as the industry grows rapidly, little is known about the risk to bird populations during construction and operation of wind facilities, and about where to site facilities to minimize harm to birds. We are working to develop and apply novel technology, such as acoustic monitoring of nocturnally migrating birds, to assess the risk to bird populations from proliferating wind-power development. With funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, our engineers are developing new applications that will assist decision-makers in siting wind turbines. We are working with a coalition of scientists from industry, government, and wildlife organizations to implement research priorities to minimize risk to wildlife. We are also helping Mexican ornithologists monitor birds at wind energy facilities at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a continental migratory flyway and Mexico’s largest and fastest-growing center of wind-power development.

Monitoring the Impact of the Wild-Caught Bird Trade

Many songbird species in Latin America are legally captured and sold as caged birds, including Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and Painted Buntings. In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), and Mexico’s General Wildlife Office, we have established a working committee to aid improved management, monitoring, and decision-making related to the cage-bird trade. These efforts will build capacity for monitoring the harvest of wild birds and provide scientific data on the impact to wild birds to inform decision-making.

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.

Conservation Action

We provide scientific information to conservation organizations, government, and industries to inform conservation decisions.

Assessing Pollution Risk and Forest Health

We are working with scientists from The Nature Conservancy in the Catskill Mountains of New York to quantify pollution risk and forest health. Trained volunteers gather data at 60 forest sites in the Catskills as part of a long-term monitoring project. We're also teaming with the Wildlife Conservation Society and other institutions to formally assess the risk posed by mercury deposition to New York biota. A report of this work can be found in the 2008 biennial report of the New York State Biodiversity Research Institute, p. 21 [Download PDF].

Assessing the Impact of Wind Energy Development on Bird Populations

Wind power is a much-needed source of alternative energy, yet even as the industry grows rapidly, little is known about the risk to bird populations during construction and operation of wind facilities, and about where to site facilities to minimize harm to birds. We are working to develop and apply novel technology, such as acoustic monitoring of nocturnally migrating birds, to assess the risk to bird populations from proliferating wind-power development. With funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, our engineers are developing new applications that will assist decision-makers in siting wind turbines. We are working with a coalition of scientists from industry, government, and wildlife organizations to implement research priorities to minimize risk to wildlife. We are also helping Mexican ornithologists monitor birds at wind energy facilities at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a continental migratory flyway and Mexico’s largest and fastest-growing center of wind-power development.

Monitoring the Impact of the Wild-Caught Bird Trade

Many songbird species in Latin America are legally captured and sold as caged birds, including Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and Painted Buntings. In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), and Mexico’s General Wildlife Office, we have established a working committee to aid improved management, monitoring, and decision-making related to the cage-bird trade. These efforts will build capacity for monitoring the harvest of wild birds and provide scientific data on the impact to wild birds to inform decision-making.

The State of the Birds

2010 State of the Birds reportWith conservation partners, the Cornell Lab issues an annual State of the Birds report, presenting key information for policy makers, conservationists, and land managers. The first report in 2009 analyzed 40 years of bird-monitoring data and showed that bird populations in many habitats are declining—a warning of the failing health of our ecosystems—but it also showed heartening evidence that birds can recover with conservation action. It also highlighted the plight of Hawaiian birds, many of them on the brink of extinction. Congress later approved an increase in federal funding to recover endangered Hawaiian birds. The 2010 report provided the nation’s first assessment of the vulnerability of birds to climate change. The results show that climate change threatens to further imperil hundreds of bird species that are already under stress from habitat loss other environmental problems—increasing the urgency for conservation efforts.

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.

Northeast Coordinated Bird Monitoring Partnership

Tracking bird population change in response to large-scale environmental change requires a coordinated approach. The Northeast Coordinated Bird Monitoring Partnership involves 12 institutions and government programs in the northeastern United States, including the Cornell Lab, American Bird Conservancy, Manomet Center for Conservation Science, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It seeks to align conservation and management needs among the many programs, and to make monitoring data available through the Northeast Avian Data Center, a node of the Avian Knowledge Network.

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 are creating 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.

Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project

Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project mapped breeding populations of Cerulean Warblers from 1997 to 2000 and identified critical sites and habitats in each state and province. This information formed the basis for a rangewide conservation plan developed through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We continue to work with the Cerulean Warbler Technical Group, including the international El Grupo Ceruleo, which received a U.S. Forest Service International Cooperation Wings Across America award.

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.

Saving 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 400 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 the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and energy providers Excelerate Energy and Suez Energy, we have established a right whale listening network in Massachusetts Bay. This network notifies these companies’ shipping vessels to slow down when right whales are detected nearby, preventing deadly collisions between whales and ships. Other ships in the area can also use the information to slow down and keep whales safe.

Learn more

Advising the Energy Industry on How to Keep Whales Safe

We use sound to monitor whales and other marine mammals in areas proposed for oil and gas drilling. By detailing the numbers and activity of whales in these areas, we can inform energy companies about how to avoid interfering with the whales’ needs to find food and communicate with one another. We advise ConocoPhillips and Imperial Oil, Inc. (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil) in Arctic waters off of Alaska and Canada.

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.

Learn more

Conservation of Focal Species

We conduct critical research to fill information gaps about threatened species and their habitats.

Ecology and Conservation of Endangered Yellow-headed Parrots

The Yellow-headed Parrot is an endangered species with isolated, fragmented populations. The species suffers from habitat loss in some areas and is still illegally trapped for the pet trade. Eduardo Iñigo-Elias from the Cornell Lab has conducted surveys to document the natural history and population status of the species in the Tres Marias Island Archipelago, Mexico. He is advising the Mexican federal government's National Institute of Ecology (INE-SEMARNAT) to protect the species.

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.

Breeding Ecology and Conservation of the Common Nighthawk

The Common Nighthawk is a Neotropical migrant that breeds across North America. Although nighthawks are still locally common in some areas, they appear to be declining across their range, especially in urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately, nighthawk populations are difficult to census using traditional methods, so it has been difficult to assess changes in abundance over time. Cornell graduate student Rebecca Lohnes and Brett Sandercock at Kansas State University have developed a method enabling citizen-science participants across North America to monitor breeding populations of nighthawks. In addition, Rebecca has studied the breeding ecology of common nighthawks at the Konza Prairie Biological Field Station, Kansas, examining the influence of nest location, adult and chick behavior, and nest microclimate on nest success. She hopes that information about nest site characteristics of a relatively robust population of birds in native prairie will help to inform urban restoration efforts.

Clark’s Nutcracker and the Endangered Whitebark Pine Ecosystem

Whitebark pine ecosystems are rapidly disappearing in the western United States, and anecdotal evidence has shown that declining whitebark pine communities contributing to declines in local Clark’s Nutcracker populations. Clark’s Nutcrackers eat and store the trees’ seeds, and the seedlings sprout almost exclusively from seeds that the nutcrackers have stored. This interdependency between whitebark pine trees and Clark’s Nutcrackers has caused considerable concern about the future of both species, and leads to questions about the requirements for restoring deforested sites. Graduate student Taza Schaming is studying Clark’s Nutcrackers and conducting habitat surveys in Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming, filling an urgent need to understand the survival, reproductive success, habitat use, and behavior of this unique, poorly known bird. Her work will help determine appropriate sampling methods for surveying Clark’s Nutcrackers in different habitat types, and she will model spatial and temporal changes of the birds’ occupancy and abundance as a function of whitebark pine and overall conifer density, cone crop, and the surrounding landscape. These data will be used to help generate a conservation strategy for the nutcracker-whitebark pine system.

Conservation Research: Black-capped Petrels

Black-capped Petrels are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, due to drastic habitat loss on their breeding grounds and predation by invasive mammals including cats, rats, and mongoose. The global population is estimated to be as low as 2,000 birds. Of three remaining known breeding sites (two in Haiti, and one in the Dominican Republic), the site at La Visite, Haiti, is the largest, and harbors up to 90% of breeding Black-capped Petrels. Unfortunately, this forest is shrinking rapidly because local people have few or no economic alternatives to cutting trees for daily cooking fuel and expanding slash-and-burn agriculture to replace degraded lands. The tragic earthquake in January 2010 will inevitably increase pressure on the forest due to the exodus of people from the capital, Port-au-Prince. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, graduate student Jim Goetz worked with collaborators to conduct surveys at the three main sites, trained local biologists, and will continue to collect data on the petrels’ abundance and breeding biology. Most importantly, the group will continue to engage with local and international partners to identify critical conservation areas and explore alternative livelihoods for local people to preserve as much remaining forest as possible.

Ecology and Conservation of the Endangered Cuban Parakeet

The Cuban Parakeet is a vulnerable species in Cuba, with highly fragmented and isolated populations. Cuban Parakeets are still trapped for the pet-bird trade, and habitat loss is important in some areas of Cuba where the species still breeds. Eduardo Iñigo-Elias is an advisor to Ph.D. candidate Maikel Cañizares, who is studying the distribution, behavior, and ecology of Cuban Parakeets. As part of the study, Maikel will learn bird-monitoring techniques and conduct research on how to augment breeding populations by providing artificial nest boxes.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project

In 1935, Arthur Allen and colleagues at the Cornell Lab, including Peter Paul Kellogg and graduate student James Tanner, embarked on the only formal study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Less than 10 years later this magnificent bird was all but gone. In 2004 in the swamps of southeastern Arkansas, Gene Sparling observed a bird reminiscent of the famed "Lord God Bird." Soon after, search teams made five additional sightings and David Luneau captured a short video of a bird believed to be an ivory-bill. A five-year intensive, collaborative search of the bottomland hardwoods of the southeastern United States ensued—a second chance to find and protect a species that had become a vivid symbol of the most comprehensive conservation failure of 20th-century America. The Cornell Lab and partners searched more than 523,000 acres in 8 states, using acoustic monitoring technology to increase the chances of detecting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. No definitive evidence was found and it is unlikely that ivory-bills still exist in the areas that were extensively searched.

Learn more

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 are creating 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.

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.

Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project

Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project mapped breeding populations of Cerulean Warblers from 1997 to 2000 and identified critical sites and habitats in each state and province. This information formed the basis for a rangewide conservation plan developed through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We continue to work with the Cerulean Warbler Technical Group, including the international El Grupo Ceruleo, which received a U.S. Forest Service International Cooperation Wings Across America award.

Conservation of Critically Endangered Purple-winged Ground-Doves

The Purple-winged Ground-Dove is a critically endangered bird of bamboo forests in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. In collaboration with Argentinean ornithologist Juan Ignacio Areat and the conservation organization Armonia in Bolivia, we support surveys to find and document Purple-winged Ground Doves in the Atlantic Forest of Argentina and Paraguay during the flowering of Takuarusu bamboo. Research and monitoring of Purple-winged Ground Doves are needed to advance conservation efforts.

Tracking Vulture Declines

The catastrophic crash of White-rumped, Slender-billed, Long-billed, and Red-headed vultures in South Asia represents a particularly tragic case of wildlife being unintentionally harmed by human activity. In the past 20 years vulture populations in South Asia have fallen by more than 95 percent—likely the steepest population decline of any raptor group in modern history. It's largely due to an unexpected side-effect of an anti-inflammatory administered to cattle. We are striving to develop an understanding of population demographics (population size, rates of births/deaths, etc.) for several of these species in other parts of their Asian range as a crucial piece of information in saving them. To do this we are using noninvasive genetic mark-recapture techniques to obtain critical data on the biology and demographics of these birds that are otherwise very difficult to track and study in the wild.

Learn more

The Unique Birds of Hispaniola

The Caribbean island of Hispaniola (encompassing the Dominican Republic and Haiti) supports an unusually high number of endemic birds, including Broad- and Narrow-billed todies (Todus subulatus and T. angustirostris), Black-crowned and Gray-crowned palm-tanagers (Phaenicophilus palmarum and P. poliocephalus), Green-tailed Ground-Tanager (Microligea palustris), and Hispaniola Highland-Tanager (Xenoligia montana). Some populations of these species are critically endangered, particularly those in the poorly preserved forests remaining in Haiti. We study the genetic variation among these populations in order to identify those that are highly evolutionarily distinct. By prioritizing the preservation of these unique populations, we have a greater chance of preserving the adaptive diversity of these species and ensuring their long-term persistence.

Tools & Technology

We create cutting-edge tools for monitoring wildlife on land, under the sea, and in the air, including remote sound recording systems, sound analysis software, and dynamic Internet tools for presenting and exploring data.

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.

Learn more

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. We also created the XBAT sound analysis application to enable scientists with diverse needs to analyze large-scale data sets recorded on land or under water. We have used XBAT to study the dawn chorus of birds, to listen for endangered right whales, and to explore the effects of underwater noise on humpback whales. With support from the Leon Levy Foundation and Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation, we are enhancing XBAT to detect, classify, and locate nocturnally migrating birds based on their calls.

Learn more

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.

Online Tools for Acoustic Analysis

Cornell Lab engineers have developed technology with enormous capacity for recording and storing bird sounds. A major challenge is to match our ability to gather recordings with the ability to analyze and make use of them. We are developing web-based tools that will allow anyone connected to the Internet to examine such recordings from any place at any time. The work, funded by the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, will help accelerate bioacoustics research and will allow acoustic monitoring of migratory birds at offshore wind facilities.

Generating New Lightweight Tags to Track Bird Migrations

In collaboration with a group of international scientists, we are developing very small radio frequency tags to track birds over great distances. Currently the tags utilize computers that record sunrise and sunset data that can be used to calculate the location of the bird. The data can be downloaded from the tag without capturing the bird.

Learn more

Tracking Night Migrants Across the Gulf of Mexico

Each spring and fall, hundreds of millions of birds embark on a 600-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico—even tiny thrushes, warblers, and hummingbirds. Ornithologists have been interested in these trans-Gulf migrations for decades, but it has proved very difficult to track such small birds over such huge distances. We are collaborating with researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi, University of Illinois, and Illinois Natural History Survey to deploy a “virtual fence” of automated radio-telemetry antennas and receivers across the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Field workers on the U.S. Gulf Coast (Alabama) attach tiny radio-tags to birds as they migrate through; the receivers along the Yucatan coast relocate them as they arrive, noting where and when each individual makes landfall. In 2009, the Conservation Science program deployed seven autonomous recording units to the Yucatán coast to assist in this cutting-edge monitoring study.

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 contact us to find out 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 Online

Birds of North American OnlineThe Birds of North America Online is a comprehensive reference that details the life histories of the more than 700 species of birds that breed in North America. Species profiles include 20–30 pages of life history information, plus image galleries, videos, and sound recordings. The original print version, published in 2002, was 18,000 pages—a joint 10-year project of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Academy of Natural Sciences. Today, The Birds of North America Online is a living resource, frequently updated by contributions from researchers, citizen scientists, and designated reviewers and editors.

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.

Avian Knowledge Network

Avian Knowledge NetworkWith more than 100 million bird observations online, the Avian Knowledge Network has amassed the world’s single largest collection of data on species occurrence. Made possible by collaborations with international experts and institutions, the Avian Knowledge Network organizes data and makes them widely accessible. The goals include educating the public about the dynamics of bird populations, providing interactive decision-making tools for land managers and advancing new exploratory analysis techniques to study bird populations. Learn more on the Avian Knowledge Network 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.

Saving 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 400 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 the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and energy providers Excelerate Energy and Suez Energy, we have established a right whale listening network in Massachusetts Bay. This network notifies these companies’ shipping vessels to slow down when right whales are detected nearby, preventing deadly collisions between whales and ships. Other ships in the area can also use the information to slow down and keep whales safe.

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.

Training

We train the next generation of conservation leaders through training programs for undergraduates and graduate students, and professional workshops for international colleagues.

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.

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:

An interactive online course in Bird Behavior: Courtship and Rivalry from the Lab of Ornithology is newly available
Birds of North America Online, ultimate source for bird info, join for $5/month
Shop for our Causes, your purchase supports our mission
My Bird World is a collection of four delightful games that teach you about North American birds.