Conservation Science Program

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Scarlet Tanager

We bring the Cornell Lab’s academic tradition to the global challenge of conservation. We provide the scientific expertise necessary to develop sound conservation strategies and address the most critical threats to birds and biodiversity. We forge partnerships to combine our skills with the commitment, passion, and knowledge of local organizations. Our goal is to secure bird populations and habitats throughout the Western Hemisphere through research, teaching, training, dissemination of scientific knowledge, and partnerships that influence policy.

Project Highlights

Focal Species Conservation

We address the highest priority conservation needs of birds through collaborative research that applies a combination of citizen-science, monitoring, and habitat analysis.

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.

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.

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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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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.

Habitats and Human Impacts

We aid conservation efforts by advancing the understanding of how ecosystems are affected by human-caused change, including habitat loss and fragmentation, acid rain, mercury contamination, and wind-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, forest thrushes, and Golden-winged Warblers.

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.

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.

Neotropical Conservation Initiative

We advance the conservation of birds and habitats throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, through capacity-building, training, bird-monitoring, research, conservation planning, and strategic partnerships with host-country organizations. Our work focuses on the Greater Antilles, Mexico, and northern Central America, regions that have high biodiversity and vital habitats for migratory birds facing numerous threats.

The Caribbean supports more than 560 species of birds, and 75% of these are North American migrants that winter or pass through the Caribbean. Twenty-five percent of the avifauna is endemic to the region; of these, 56 species are listed as globally threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Mexico and Guatemala have 1,100 species of birds, 60% of which are North American migratory species that winter in or move through the region. Approximately 10% of the avifauna is endemic to the region; 54 species are globally threatened.

These are some of the areas where we work:


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Argentina and Paraguay

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.

Influencing Policy Through Partnerships

We use the results of our research to make recommendations that are vital for science-based conservation policies in the United States and throughout the Western Hemisphere.

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.

Acoustic Bird Monitoring

Each year, rivers of migrating birds flow above our heads at night, unseen. Using advanced technology, we record and analyze the sounds of these migrations to advance scientific knowledge of migration ecology.

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 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.

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