A Quarter Century of Leadership

Photo by Jason Koski.

Adapted from a career profile by Scott Weidensaul. Read the full article in Living Bird, Spring 2021.

After 26 years, John W. Fitzpatrick is stepping down from his directorship of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—a hugely influential tenure that saw the explosive expansion of the Cornell Lab’s size, mission, and global reach.

“I don’t think anybody could have had the vision, but also the nerve, to go out there and try the things that he did,” said Linda Macaulay, chair of the Cornell Lab board of directors.

That combination of vision and nerve, not to mention insatiable academic curiosity, led Fitz, as he is almost universally known, to remake the Lab as a leading light in conservation, bioacoustics, community science, data visualization, evolutionary biology, public engagement in science, online learning, and science communication.

“Honestly, if you think about it historically, he’s one of the most important figures in [modern] ornithology,” said Melinda Pruett-Jones, executive director of the American Ornithologi­cal Society.

“Fitz has had the biggest and most multifaceted role in ornithology of anyone in his generation, or generations around it, frankly,” said Irby Lovette, director of Cor­nell University’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program. “And I think that’s partly because he’s had multiple careers.”

Those careers include formative days in Harvard museum corridors, discovery of new species in the Peruvian Andes, 12 years as a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum, 6 years at Florida’s Archbold Biological Station, and his transformative turn at the helm of the Cornell Lab.

All along the way, Fitz has been an outsized voice for bird conservation and for engaging the wider public in the sheer joy of birds.

Early Sparks of an Influential Career

Every birder has a spark bird, and Fitz’s came to him early in life, while he was home sick from kindergarten.

“It was a male American Redstart, and it was right outside the living room of our house.” Fitz recalled. That same year, the youngster joined his first Christmas Bird Count (and has participated every year since).

American Redstart by Garrett Hughes/Macaulay Library.
American Redstart by Garrett Hughes/Macaulay Library.

A succession of mentors stoked that spark into a passion. Two neighbors—a noted artist and an ecologist—encouraged Fitz as a boy. At Harvard, Fitz wandered into the Museum of Comparative Zoology and struck up a friendship with the seminal evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. Later, a meeting with Princeton ecologist John Terborgh introduced Fitz to tropical exploration in Peru. By the end of the 1970s he had helped describe a new wood-wren, hummingbird, brushfinch, and pygmy-tyrant—several of which he illustrated for journals himself.

Guiding an ecotour in the Galapagos, Fitz met his future wife, Molly. As his family grew, his attention turned away from what he called “gallivanting months on end in the wilds of the Amazon,” and toward the fascinating Florida Scrub-Jay, a species known for its own close-knit family groups.

His work on this endangered species cemented Fitz’s deep commitment to conservation. (He once stood in front of a bulldozer to save a patch of scrub habitat.) As director of the Cornell Lab, he fashioned a unique role for the institution as a source of top-shelf scientific information that could directly inform conservation efforts.

A Visionary Directorship

In 1995, the Cornell Lab was a motley collection of 14 aging buildings, including cinderblock structures and leaky trailers. It was a respected institution thanks to founder Arthur Allen’s belief in including the general public in the scientific process—an idea that became the burgeoning field of citizen science. But the Lab had yet to arrive on the global stage.

Lab staff 2015, courtesy of CLO.
During Fitz’s time at the Lab, the staff grew from about 30 to its present size of about 250. Photo (2015) via Cornell Lab archives.

As the Lab’s new director, Fitz determined to increase the Lab’s scope and influence. He started by securing professorships and attracting top minds to posts in evolutionary biology, citizen science, bioacoustics, bird population studies, and others. And he set to work raising funds to create a single, modern building to unify the growing institution.

In April 2003, the 90,000-square-foot Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity opened its doors. The legendary Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson delivered remarks at the opening ceremony. Today the building houses some 250 staff, nearly 10 times the size of the institution when Fitz arrived.

In 1995 the Internet was still a commodity, and Fitz didn’t even use email. But he presided over the creation of a digital Cornell Lab available to nearly anyone, anywhere. It was a shift that reshaped the fields of citizen science, big-data analyses, museum collections, public outreach, and education.

A Global Perspective

As a leader, Fitz has had a healthy appetite for risk and reward. “We’re not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them,” has been his mantra in meetings. Whenever he recognized potential—whether in ideas, people, or partnerships—he was eager to put the resources of the Cornell Lab behind it.

Wall of Birds by Jane Kim. Photo courtesy of CLO.
The massive Wall of Birds mural, by Jane Kim, is three stories high and takes up an entire wall in the Cornell Lab visitor center. Photo by Karen Rodriguez.

That culture of experimenta­tion and innovation set the Lab on course to become the premier global institution, as the mission statement goes, “to interpret and conserve the earth’s biologi­cal diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.”

That willingness to experiment led to unexpected innovations. Collaborations like the State of the Birds Report, which arose from a conversation with former President George W. Bush and unites nearly 30 bird organizations. Or Celebrate Urban Birds, a bilingual project that celebrates the message that birds are everywhere, and important to every art and every culture. Or Merlin Bird ID, a smart app that works as an ID assistant and pocket field guide to almost anywhere on earth. And the list goes on.

Perhaps the foremost example of Fitz’s try-it-and-see approach has been eBird, which started in the early 2000s as a way for birdwatchers to enter and keep track of their sightings online. Ten years later, in 2012, eBird hit the 100 million mark in total species-observations. Today, it’s archiving more than 100 million observations every year. In May 2021, Fitz’s penultimate month on the job, eBird hit 1 billion observations.

Besides eBird, the Cornell Lab today is a global leader in digital media, ranging from the 28 million+ photos, videos, and sounds in the Macaulay Library; to All About Birds, our free compendium of bird and birdwatching resources visited by more than 20 million people each year; to the 10,000-plus scholarly species accounts at Birds of the World.

“I’m very proud of the Lab. We’ve accomplished a lot, and we still are. It’s growing, it’s continuing to explore,” Fitz says. “The world could use a dozen of these places, but by God, I’m damned glad it has at least one.”

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