Conservation Science Program

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Conservation Science Program: We make science and technology work for conservation. Conserving birds and biodiversity in the 21st Century is a complex endeavor that requires innovative science and technology, a detailed understanding of biological and human systems, and the ability to implement sustainable solutions at global and local scales. We believe that the highest return on conservation investments comes when science is used to guide actions. That is why closing the gap between science and action is central to our mission.

In the Conservation Science Program we not only conduct scientific research, we also work with partners to strategically apply science to today’s conservation problems, develop and help implement approaches that support conservation and communities, engage decision-makers and practitioners to shape planning and policy, and train and empower the next generation of scientists and conservation leaders.

Watch the video below in which conservation science director Amanda Rodewald explains why conservation must consider the needs of people and how shade-grown coffee can conserve birds and other biodiversity, support farmers and local communities, protect ecosystem services, and produce a great cup of coffee.

Project Highlights

By conducting interdisciplinary research, we identify and understand the needs of and threats to priority systems and species, the actions needed to ensure conservation, and the ways to work with people to achieve them.

Our applied research makes a real difference for people and for nature, in part because we recognize that the fates of the two are closely intertwined. We integrate social and ecological sciences so that we can not only address threats facing species and ecosystems, but also find creative solutions that balance human needs in working landscapes. At the same time, we innovate approaches that allow our science and questions to fit the full life cycle of birds – when they are breeding, migrating, and overwintering. Our science guides the development of a wide range of conservation plans and actions, including those designed to conserve endemic and migratory birds throughout the Western Hemisphere, restore and conserve habitat and vulnerable ecosystems, and promote bird-friendly practices that protect tropical montane forests and sustain local human communities.

Cities that Work for Birds and People

Urban development stands out as one of the key threats to birds across all ecosystem types. At the same time, the conservation community has recognized that we have the opportunity to plan, build, and modify our cities in ways that we can better meet the needs of people and the environment. Our cities can be more sustainable than what we see today, but we first need to better understand the ecological processes that operate within urban systems. For over a decade, we have been studying how urbanization affects birds and other species, particularly in relation to three defining attributes of many urban ecosystems–invasive species, abundant predators, and a rich assortment of human-provided resources (like bird-feeders). Our work is teaching us about how human inputs and activities affect bird communities, change interactions among species, and shape the “nature” within our cities. This knowledge will help to inform and guide strategies to make cities more sustainable.

Coffee, Conservation, and Communities

That cup of coffee you drink every day connects you not only to the millions of people around the world who depend upon coffee for their livelihoods, but also to millions of birds that rely on coffee farms as habitat. Coffee was traditionally grown below a diverse canopy of trees – something called shade-grown coffee. Those shade coffee farms are especially well-suited to simultaneously meet a variety of economic, social, and ecological needs. Unfortunately, traditional shade management has given way to more intensive uses like “sun coffee” monocultures that promise higher productivity but at greater environmental cost and potentially more economic risk. Our research and partnerships with conservation organization are working to identify the key habitat features that birds need and the livelihood-supporting incentives to promote their use. You can read more about shade-coffee in our special Living Bird article and videos on our bird-related research and our interdisciplinary work to understand the connections among coffee, communities, and conservation. Check out a Cornell Lab Monday Night Seminar on the topic.

Conservation in Working Landscapes

Bird conservation isn’t only about the birds. We are challenged to identify creative ways to sustain biodiversity, protect critical ecosystem services, and support human health and well-being within “working landscapes.” Scientists and students in Conservation Science are working with partners in more than 11 countries to identify conservation approaches and incentives that work for the rural communities that depend upon natural resources for their livelihoods. Our research identifies the best management practices in working landscapes, and focuses especially on sustainable forestry, agroforestry (like coffee and chocolate) that can better support human well-being, ecosystem services, and biodiversity conservation.

Conserving Priority Species and Ecosystems

It’s hard to conserve what we don’t understand, and unfortunately many of the highest priority species and ecosystems are difficult to study. From the Arctic to the southern tip of South America, we are working with students and other partners around the world to conduct on-the-ground research to identify key threats to species and ecosystems and to develop approaches to protect them. For example, we are working in Central and South American forests, which are among the most biodiverse places in the world, to identify ways that conservation can be compatible with efforts to lift rural communities out of poverty. We also work with partners to eradicate exotic predators and reestablish breeding colonies of seabirds in the pelagic and coastal systems near Baja California and the Pacific Islands off Mexico. In the highest forests in the world–the Polylepis forests in Peru–we are learning how climate change and human activities affect endemic and globally threatened species. Our work takes us to these and many more places to conduct research that informs and guides conservation efforts.

Full Annual and Life Cycle Conservation

Migratory birds often traverse vast geographies and encounter multiple threats throughout the year, which creates serious challenges for defining and prioritizing the most important actions needed to conserve them. Because most of the 230 declining species of migratory birds in North America spend the majority of the year on their wintering grounds in Latin America, we apply innovative field, technological, and computational approaches to better understand non-breeding distribution and ecology of migrants. Our research ranges from basic studies of nonbreeding distributions of long-distance migrants (many of which are still poorly known), to development of full life-cycle conservation plans for high-priority species such as Cerulean Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, and Bicknell’s Thrush, to sophisticated population modeling of threatened species such as Tricolored Blackbird and Wood Thrush, to deployment of cutting edge tracking technologies to study the year-round biology of songbirds and globetrotting shorebirds such as the Hudsonian Godwit.

Neotropical Flyways

For many declining songbirds that overwinter in South or Central America, a majority of their long migrations take place south of the U.S. and Canada. Yet despite migration being the riskiest portion of their annual cycle, we know very little about routes, potential bottlenecks, and vital stopovers within the Neotropics that are crucial for sustaining migratory populations. By teaming up with our partner organization SELVA, one of Colombia’s leading research and conservation groups, we are discovering the most important migration stopover sites and habitats, and using this information to target conservation actions in the most critical areas. Emerging results from the Neotropical Flyways Project show that many songbirds behave more like shorebirds on migration—making long flights and relying on a relatively small number of stopovers.

Threats to Bird Populations

Birds face many different threats, including habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation from human development, invasive species, and energy extraction; pollution and exposure to toxins; climate change; and direct mortality from cats, vehicles, and collisions with human-created structures like windows, communications towers, and wind turbines. We use cutting edge science to examine these threats and ameliorate the risks to birds and other wildlife. Our staff and graduate students collect data from study sites in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America to learn what ecological impacts are limiting bird populations. We also work closely with partner organizations, such as American Bird Conservancy, that can apply our science results to advocacy campaigns aimed at changing policy to reduce threats to birds.

By working at the interface of science and application, we bring knowledge and resources to decision-makers and practitioners, provide leadership for conservation initiatives, foster partnerships, and influence management, planning, and policy.

We ensure that planning efforts are based on the best science and involve the key partners. We bridge the gap between science and application by bringing knowledge, innovative technology, and other resources to those groups who can directly affect conservation on the ground, such as farmers, foresters, fishers, land-managers, cooperatives, decision-makers, protected areas managers, and conservation biologists. By linking our strategic conservation initiatives to the Cornell Lab’s unique citizen-science databases, education programs, and web-based and multi-media outreach tools, we provide a powerful and engaging approach to international conservation. By using science and the universal appeal of birds, we are able to achieve lasting, landscape-scale conservation that helps to ensure the protection of, not only birds, but the western hemisphere’s most important ecosystems.

Bird and Biodiversity Monitoring

Birds are widely recognized to be one of the best indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem function available to scientists and practitioners. Birds are ideal indicators because they are easily observed, broadly distributed across multiple habitat types, and used widely around the globe to inform conservation and management practices. We actively engage with partners across the Western hemisphere to develop integrated bird monitoring programs aimed at providing quantifiable, conservation impact targets focused on bird populations. We also work with students and post-doctoral scientists to advance monitoring methodologies to improve our inferences, and increase the value of information at local and regional scales. As an example, we are working with NGO, academic and government partners to develop a participatory, bird-monitoring program implemented in eBird to support the governance and integrated management of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.

Forest Restoration in Latin America

The most pressing global challenges relate directly or indirectly to environmental degradation. As the environment declines, human communities are increasingly vulnerable to disasters, climate change, social unrest, and emerging diseases, with the rural poor bearing the brunt of negative outcomes. Forest restoration is one key strategy to reduce or ameliorate these risks because forests benefit more than 1.6 billion of the rural poor, provide 25 to 30% of rural household income and food, and generate tens of billions of dollars that support livelihoods and economies, according to data from IUCN. As such, several global initiatives and agreements have promoted forest conservation and restoration. In addition, there are growing numbers of market-based instruments and incentive programs–especially related to sustainable forestry and agroforestry (like coffee and cacao)–designed to achieve global sustainability goals. We are working with partners in economics and business in the USA and elsewhere to identify ecologically important landscapes, evaluate mechanisms for forest restoration, understand markets, and ultimately develop portfolios of viable incentive programs and financial mechanisms.

Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative

Golden-winged Warblers have suffered precipitous population declines caused by loss of habitat on their breeding and wintering grounds, and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers. We are working with partners to create and implement a conservation strategy enabling state, federal, and private land managers in North, Central, and South America to manage habitat for Golden-winged Warblers and other species that depend on early successional habitats such as young forests. The Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Initiative draws on monitoring, experimental management, and research to protect Golden-winged Warblers during their annual cycle, including migration, and offers a comprehensive species assessment and management approach at the regional level for Golden-winged Warbler conservation. It incorporates information from the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project, which engaged citizen-science participants in mapping the breeding range of Golden-winged Warblers.

Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative

Land trusts can make a critical contribution to conserving birds and birds can benefit the conservation efforts of land trusts by helping to grow support and capacity. Approximately 47 million acres are protected by land trusts, creating a network of private, protected lands nearly as large as the National Park system in the lower 48 states. These lands are important to hundreds of common birds and critical to the more than 100 species of conservation significance that have at least 50% of their breeding distribution on private lands. For instance, grassland birds are declining faster than any other group and these species are almost completely reliant on private lands, which hold about 81% of grasslands. Our Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative adds synergy to the good work being done by the bird conservation and land trust communities, and provides resources, tools, and funding opportunities to advance the pace and impact of land trusts’ protection and stewardship efforts through birds.

Seabird Restoration on Pacific Islands

Seabirds are among of the most rapidly declining birds in the world and in urgent need of conservation. For the past six years we’ve partnered with the Mexican NGO “Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas” (GECI), government agencies, academic institutions, and other conservation partners to restore and monitor seabirds and endemic landbirds on the Pacific Islands off Baja California, Mexico. This partnership contributed significantly to the Mexican government’s decision to establish a new marine reserve (“Reserva de la Biosfera Islas del Pacífico”) to protect the region.

State of the Birds and Species Assessments

To ensure that the best science is used in conservation decision-making, we synthesize and interpret wide-ranging research results for diverse audiences. Since 2009, the Lab has been a leading organization responsible for the science and production of the high profile U.S. State of the Birds Report that communicates the status of bird populations, the threats they face, and the major actions needed to conserve our Nation’s birds to decision-makers, politicians, and the public. In 2016, we co-led the first State of North America’s Birds report–with Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. The lab also led the development of Partners in Flight’s 2016 Landbird Conservation Plan and played a key role in the completion of the first species assessment for Central America. This multi-country effort highlighted that 40% of resident bird species (466 sp.) are of conservation concern, and identified deforestation and habitat degradations driven by agricultural expansion and urbanization as the main threats in the region. All of these efforts depend on rigorous species conservation assessments throughout the Western Hemisphere to identify priority species and landscapes.

American Bird Conservancy-Cornell Lab Partnership

To achieve the highest level of science-based conservation action throughout the Americas, our Science to Action initiative links world-renowned research and data resources at the Lab with on-the-ground conservation actions effectively applied by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Through its partner network of in-country organizations in Latin America and Caribbean, ABC owns or manages more than 65 reserves (nearly 1 million acres) in 13 countries and advocates to protect the most threatened bird species worldwide. To connect cutting edge science with ABC’s projects and places, we are working with eBird and other datasets, including results of migration stopover studies, to help refine and prioritize landscape-scale conservation strategies in Central and South America. We also provide scientific support to evaluate and monitor the results of conservation actions, and share communications, outreach, and media resources to provide a stronger and more unified voice for bird conservation.

We teach and inspire students, scientists, and managers across the Western Hemisphere, as well as engage with universities, research institutions, and government agencies to bring knowledge, tools, materials, training, and support needed to protect and manage birds. As one example, we provide training that underlies a multinational effort to restore seabird populations along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico by removing predators, restoring habitat, recruiting new breeders through social attraction, and monitoring populations. We also offer short courses and workshops on topics such as population ecology, statistical modeling and software, and development of monitoring programs for users across a wide range of skill levels. We develop online resources that can be used by the conservation community around the world. Here at Cornell University, we are mentoring and training the next generation by teaching formal university courses and advising students and post-doctoral fellows.

For more than 20 years, staff and faculty in the Conservation Science Program have served as national and international leaders in guiding partner-based conservation, including the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, Partners in Flight Science and Steering committees, focal species working groups, such as the International Wood Thrush Conservation Alliance and the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group; serving on the management board of the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture; and numerous advisory panels for state and federal agencies. We share our expertise and data resources widely to ensure that the best available science is being used for on-the-ground bird conservation.

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