Cornell Lab Annual Report 2022Download the Full Report
Sparking Action to Bend the Curve
Putting Science into Action
Researchers at the Cornell Lab are performing groundbreaking science and creating state-of-the-art technology—but that’s only part of the answer to the conservation crisis. We’re also taking our work to the wider world, making sure that innovative enterprises like eBird and BirdCast serve scientists as well as the public. And we’re sharing science and our tools with communities and policy-makers to spark decision-making that benefits birds and all of the natural world.
Highlight: This year the aeroecology pioneers at BirdCast launched Migration Dashboard, allowing anyone to see details about where, when, and how many birds undertake their grand nighttime migrations over the United States in the spring and fall.
Changing the World by Opening Hearts and Minds
In order to bend the curve of declining biodiversity in a positive direction, the Cornell Lab works at scales that impact large swaths of the Earth.
Highlight: Disease, insects, and climate change are turning the West’s whitebark pine forests into ghostly tree graveyards. The decline also threatens the Clark’s Nutcracker, the whitebark’s primary seed disperser. To galvanize support for a major collaborative restoration project, the Center for Conservation Media created a short film that shows both the dire reality of the decline and the intense commitment of the people working to bring the forests back.
Hope and Restoration: Saving the Whitebark Pine
[contemplative music builds]
DAN TYERS, USDA FOREST SERVICE: The evidence is abundant and irrefutable that people are drawn to wildlands. … There’s something that resonates in the human soul, in our human condition. And …there is a particular resonance … that comes from having white bark pine forests present. It is unique within a landscape that’s unique. It has a sense of timelessness because you are walking through a forest of trees that are hundreds of years old. And what they offer on the landscape can’t be replicated. It can’t be duplicated in a short period of time…in a culture that seems … to gravitate to the immediate, there is a longevity, a permanence that you find in white bark pine forests that … even if we can’t fully express it – draws us in.
[Text on screen: Hope and Restoration: Saving the Whitebark Pine]
ELIZABETH PANSING, AMERICAN FORESTS: The thing that I admire and appreciate the most about whitebark pine is … its tenacity. You see this thing growing on the most amazing ridge tops and at tree line and in these environments where no other tree can exist.
MIKE DURGLO, CONFEDERATED SALISH & KOOTENAI TRIBES: We’ve been working … working with whitebark pine for several years now and I think of it our people. Our people have survived. Our people are resilient.
TRACY STONE-MANNING, BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT: There’s something really magical about being in a really high-elevation place that’s really windy and really inhospital … and to see these giant beautiful trees thriving.
DOUG SMITH, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK: Whitebark pine is almost exclusively a high-elevation tree within its entire range… they’re the craggy, gnarled trees that you see at timberline. They’re that top layer to the forest in the mountains, all the way to the Sierras and Cascades and north into Alberta and British Columbia.
ELIZABETH PANSING: … If you are going hiking at high elevations, you’ve probably passed a whitebark in the western United States and not known it … if you are going backcountry skiing or if you’re at many of the ski resorts in the western United States, you’ve probably skied past a whitebark and not known it.
DIANA TOMBACK, WHITEBARK PINE ECOSYSTEM FOUNDATION: Where whitebark pine grows, its canopies…redistribute snow…the shade from their crowns will preserve that snow well into the summer.
BOB KEANE, USDA FOREST SERVICE: These forests actually stabilize the snowpack, allowing the snow to melt slower and provide high quality water for longer periods during the summer.
LIZ DAVY, USDA FOREST SERVICE: In this area … a lot of folks downstream rely on that snowmelt for their irrigation water. For their culinary water. To replenish the water in the water table.
MELISSA JENKINS, USDA FOREST SERVICE: White bark pine has so many benefits… and I’m sure there’s a lot we don’t even understand… But probably the most important ecosystem service that white bark provides is a wildlife food source. A white bark cone is about four or five inches long. They are dark purplish brown, kind of color. And they are very sappy. But the magic is what’s inside the cone…
BOB KEANE: Whitebark produces these unbelievably large seeds, the largest seed of any tree that we have in the Northern Rockies.
DOUG SMITH: Because their cones are large with a big nut a lot of animals rely on them … and the grizzly bears love it.
DAN TYERS: They’re trying to put on fat for going into the den for a Winter period. They need to gain as much weight as possible and the white bark pine offers them a large return for the energy expended to receive it. Andwe have enough data after many years of research to know that they are inexorably tied to the whitebark pine.
DOUG SMITH: You’re in the midst of a whitebark forest here. When it’s a good whitebark year this is a wildlife hub … So, this is a real important area for bears, for red squirrels but the nutcrackers are arguably the most spectacular.
MELISSA JENKINS: I think that the most interesting thing about whitebark that really catches people’s attention …is that fact that the tree could not exist without this bird that plants its seeds.
DOUG SMITH: Almost all the whitebark pine reproduction up and down the Rocky Mountain chain is due to nutcrackers caching the seeds. So, this forest really depends on the bird.
DIANA TOMBACK: A nutcracker will come along and remove the seeds from the cone and then they bury small clusters of seeds pretty much everywhere in the high mountain environment.
DOUG SMITH: They stash these seeds, sometimes up to tens of thousands in caches, and no one can believe that they can recover these things, but they do! …They don’t get them all though. And so, some of those caches grow into whitebark pine and most of whitebark pine is established that way. And so, the two are intertwined. So, it’s a really very important relationship, and it’s starting to fall apart. It’s falling apart because the whitebarks are dying for multiple reasons, and it’s exemplified here. Everything I look out and see that’s dead is whitebark.
BOB KEANE: Since the start of my career, the decline of white bark pine is just breathtaking… In areas we’ve lost over 90 to 95 percent of these trees.
LIZ DAVY: I began to see whole entire upper watersheds die. It was heartbreaking to see that.
ELIZABETH PANSING: You go out there and it’s really hard to find a healthy tree on the landscape. It’s depressing. It’s everything from these little, tiny seedlings that are less than a foot tall all the way up to the biggest trees on the landscape and every single one of them, virtually, has white pine blister rust.
ERIC SPRAGUE, AMERICAN FORESTS: Whitebark pine is facing extinction primarily because of white pine blister rust. White pine blister rust is a non-native fungus that infects a tree through its needles and slowly creates these cankers that then cut off the flow of nutrients and water, killing limbs. Over time that spreads and will kill the entire tree.
DIANA TOMBACK: This disease has been spreading through whitebark pine for nearly a century. This is the main existential threat to whitebark pine.
WALTER WHETJI, RICKETTS CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: I think if you look back on some of the history of diseases like this, pathogens that have gone through North America, the classic case is chestnut blight which came into the U.S. in the late 1800s. And forty years later there were no American Chestnut left in the forest.
DIANA TOMBACK: If we fail to do anything for whitebark pine … we are going to end up with many regions of our high mountain areas without it and we’d lose the ecosystem services, the wildlife food, the habitat protection, the watershed protection. It will be very apparent that some cataclysm affected our Western forests mightily on a large scale.
JAKE BAKER, USDA FOREST SERVICE: (I don’t think I need it.) So, as we’re coming through here we’re looking for trees that we know to be genetically resistant to blister rust. So, these are the ones we’re going to be caging in today.
DIANA TOMBACK:We have no cure for white pine blister rust and … the only recourse we have is to look for the small number of individuals in each population that seems to have natural genetic resistance. Those individuals are the foundation of restoring whitebark pine.
JAKE BAKER: These cones will be shipped to the Coeur d’Alene nursery in Idaho and eventually used to grow seedlings in the nursery.
ARAM ERAMIAN, USDA FOREST SERVICE: The seedlings we are growing have some level of resistance to blister rust.On average, we’re growing about 150,000 seedlings per year… 150,000 one-year-old seedlings, 150,000 two-year-old seedlings.
ERIKA WILLIAMS, USDA FOREST SERVICE: When we plant trees the first thing is we really look for an excellent planting location. We’re looking for, like, a log that’s down or maybe a stump; something that’s going to provide shade and hold some moisture and give it the best life and the best start that it can have.
ARAM ERAMIAN: It’s very gratifying to go out and see these seedlings on the landscape… it is very humbling I’ll say that we are having such an impact. And in the special case, the whitebark pine where this is a threatened species, we’re able to recreate it and put it back on site.
MELISSA JENKINS: I have a lot of hope for the future of whitebark pine because I see the passion in the people who are working to restore it… They’re doing the research … planting trees, collecting cones, … growing all the seedlings… and I look at all these marvelous, passionate, committed people. And I – can’t help but have hope.
DIANA TOMBACK:We have a lot of people that care about the fate of this tree … But we’re realistic because we’ve moved an inch and we know that we’ve got a mile to go.
ELIZABETH PANSING: I am incredibly optimistic about the future of whitebark. I am incredibly sad about what the landscape looks like currently, but I can’t imagine looking at this as the death knells. It’s not.
LIZ DAVEY: Restoration is totally possible. We’ve done it. We are doing it. And we’ll continue to do it. I want to be able to leave something for the next generation so that they can participate and see what I’m seeing and experience what I experience. When you’re up at that high elevation, and you’re sitting in a whitebark pine stand, and the Clark’s Nutcrackers are flying around, it’s just … it’s magical. And I shouldn’t be the only one who gets to experience that.
MIKE DURGLO: You gotta think, like, you know, this is not just for me. It’s for the future generations. The forestry program for the first time in our history planted 2,000 trees. I won’t see those trees mature. But our grandchildren and our children our going to see those trees mature. And that’s, to me, what it’s all about.
DAVID LYTLE, USDA FOREST SERVICE: About 90 percent of whitebark pine occurs on public lands in the United States. So it’s critically important that we as public land management land agencies are actively involved in whitebark pine conservation.
TRACY STONE-MANNING: I think the responsibility to restore whitebark Pine rests with us all. No matter where the pine grow we all have an obligation to make sure that this species, which is just so critical for high elevation habitat, doesn’t wink out on our watch.
MELISSA JENKINS: The more that I’ve worked with whitebark, the more that I have hope, because I understand now that there are things, we can do about it. We have a plan forward. We know how to restore the species. Now we need the resources to do that. One of my favorite quotes …. It goes, “The true meaning life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
[nutcracker and chickadee calls]
End of Transcript
Scaling Up the Science of Sound Analysis
Since developing the world’s first bird recording device 90 years ago, the Cornell Lab has been committed to technology and innovation that support discovery. Today we are decoding the sounds of the natural world—from an app that can identify bird songs, to recorders that can reveal the soundscapes of an entire ecosystem. As our expertise in the biological world joins forces with world-leading big-data analysis and machine learning, we are expanding what’s possible in conservation.
Highlight: What started as a project to monitor owls in California has blossomed into a complex operation that demonstrates the possibilities of passive acoustic monitoring. The K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics now has 2,000 recording units spread throughout 7,000 square miles of the Sierra Nevada. The array uses BirdNET to continuously detect and identify virtually every bird species in the region, as well as projects to monitor the return of gray wolves and to detect populations of endangered Yosemite toads.
Saving the Planet Will Require Interdisciplinary Science
We bring together scientists with a diversity of perspectives to practice alongside artists, data scientists, engineers, and archivists. Using this interdisciplinary, tech-forward approach we train and equip the next generation of science leaders.
Highlight: In a world of limited resources, just monitoring biodiversity is beyond the means of many governments. Lab research associate Courtney Davis is helping develop a Biodiversity Progress Index that uses eBird records and big-data analysis to measure “community completeness.” It yields a 1–100 scale of how bird diversity is doing at unprecedented levels of detail. By creating clear feedback and direction for policy-makers, it’s in essence a scorecard for saving the planet.
What Good Is One Person’s Bird Observation? A Whole Lot
Every time you go outside and see or hear a bird is a moment of wonder and discovery. And those moments mean even more thanks to the power of eBird, Merlin, and the Macaulay Library. Every bird observation, photograph, and sound recording enhances the scientific value and global reach of these free resources, used by recreational birdwatchers and researchers alike.
Every single observation becomes part of a global database anyone can use. They contribute to groundbreaking research; help make Merlin Bird ID smarter; give us answers about the natural world; and enhance useful online resources like Birds of the World.
The Power of People-Centered Projects
What does it take to engage the world around birds? One way is to help people learn about them and love them. Our globe-spanning, people-centered programs help grow the ranks of bird lovers and people who care about protecting the natural world. Tens of millions of people have engaged with the Lab’s programs, projects, and people, and the ranks are growing.
Highlight: Sometimes a little funding is all that stands in the way of a big result. Last year, Celebrate Urban Birds awarded 32 “mini-grants” to local organizations in 15 countries and 3 U.S. states. Made possible by the Tom Cade Memorial Fund, the grants supported workshops and special events for 14,500 people.
2022 Fiscal Year: July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022
Thank you for supporting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In fiscal year 2022, thousands of members and donors provided more than 70% of our annual revenue, a total of $30.8 million that expands our capacity to promote global conservation through research, education, and citizen science.
As it was for many people and organizations, fiscal year 2022 was again unusual for the Lab: we saw an increase in charitable giving, combined with a minimal increase in expenses (in part driven by a tight labor market and continued reduction in travel due to the pandemic).
As a result, the Lab ended the year with an uncommon surplus of funds. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, this surplus will allow us to grow in strategic ways as quickly as possible in fiscal year 2023 and beyond, particularly given that the threats facing birds and biodiversity are immediate and significant. Thank you for making it possible for us to invest in our vital research, education, and conservation efforts.
We’re pleased to include a downloadable list of our Sapsucker Woods Society members and honor and memorial tributes here.
10-Year Trend (2013–2022)
The bar chart depicts healthy growth over the past 10 years with revenues exceeding expenditures, allowing the Lab to continually expand and strengthen our vital research, education, and conservation efforts.
Download previous annual reports here:
2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009
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