Ian Owens

Executive Director


Administrative Oversight • Fundraising • Board Relations • Evolutionary Ecology • External Communication

As Executive Director I oversee the Lab’s scientific, public, operational, and fundraising programs. I also guide the strategic development of the Lab and relationships with the Lab’s Administrative Board and broader Cornell leadership.

I’m also a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where I advise graduate students. My main research interests are in large-scale patterns in life histories, mating systems, and extinction risk; and evolution in wild populations. We use a combination of field experiments, genetic analyses, and phylogenetic and spatial models. Almost all of my work is based on birds because of the unrivaled depth of information on bird species across the globe, and the way that we can follow free-living individuals through their lives.

To me, birds are a unique tool for understanding how nature works. I also believe that there is a unique relationship between people and birds; birds have the power to inspire us to think about the world around us and care about its future.

I grew up in North Yorkshire, in the UK, and began “serious birding” as a teenager, having been exposed to birdwatching and natural history during family holidays to the mountains and coasts of Scotland and Wales. Since then, I’ve traveled around the world to see and work on birds, and birding is still a huge part of my life. At college I studied zoology and became fascinated by behavioral ecology and evolution. I went on to study evolutionary biology at graduate school, spending the summer months chasing Eurasian Dotterels on the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland in order to better understand their “sex-role reversed” mating system.

Following graduate school, I was fortunate enough to enter a career as a university professor, researching and teaching in universities in the UK and Australia. With an amazing team of students, postdocs, and collaborators we studied a wide range of topics in ecology, evolution, and behavior including the evolution of island species, biodiversity hotspots, coloration, and the genetic benefits of mate choice. A lot of our work involved large multispecies analyses, but we also did in-depth studies of particular species such as the white-eyes of the South West Pacific islands, House Sparrows on Lundy Island, Ruff on Gotland Island, Eurasian Blue Tits at Silwood Park, and invasive Rose-ringed Parakeets in the parks of South West London.

After 20 years as a university academic I decided I wanted to promote scientific understanding amongst much broader public audiences, so I moved to the Natural History Museum in London and then subsequently to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Working in natural history museums gave me the chance to learn how to engage the public with topics such as human evolution and climate change, and to develop programs in rapidly developing fields such as large-scale biodiversity data, citizen science, and next-generation genomics. Consequently, when I moved to the Lab in 2021, it felt like the convergence of these two strands of my life; a public-facing scientific institute dedicated to understanding and conserving birds embedded in one of the world’s great research universities.


PhD, University of Leicester
BSc, University of Liverpool

Spark Moment

My life was changed by a close encounter with a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier. At the age of 15 I was working as a voluntary warden at the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve on the UK’s North Norfolk Coast. While I was hunkered down in the saltmarsh a male harrier glided low over my head before swooping up into the sky. I’d never experienced such a visceral sensation, a combination of beauty and power—it left me reeling. The next day a couple of fellow wardens took me to the nearby birding meccas of Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point, where I experienced the emotional roller coaster of seeing a fly-by “bonxie” (Great Skua) and a vagrant Marsh Sandpiper whilst dipping on a Eurasian Dotterel. I was hooked.

Beyond the Lab

Sally and I love the outdoors and traveling, ideally with our two-grown up sons, involving as much hiking, cycling, kayaking, photography and art as we can manage.

Selected Publications

Peck, H. L., H. E. Pringle, H. H. Marshall, I. P. F. Owens, and A. M. Lord (2014). Experimental evidence of impacts of an invasive parakeet on foraging behavior of native birds. Behavioral Ecology 25:582–590.
Bell, S. C., I. P. F. Owens, and A. M. Lord (2014). Quality of breeding territory mediates the influence of paternal quality on sex ratio bias in a free-living bird population. Behavioral Ecology 25:352–358.
Pigot, A. L., I. P. F. Owens, and C. D. L. Orme (2012). Speciation and Extinction Drive the Appearance of Directional Range Size Evolution in Phylogenies and the Fossil Record. PLOS Biology 10:e1001260.
Jenkins, T., G. H. Thomas, O. Hellgren, and I. P. F. Owens (2012). Migratory Behavior of Birds Affects Their Coevolutionary Relationship with Blood Parasites. Evolution 66:740–751.
Olson, V. A., R. G. Davies, C. D. L. Orme, G. H. Thomas, S. Meiri, T. M. Blackburn, K. J. Gaston, I. P. F. Owens, and P. M. Bennett (2009). Global biogeography and ecology of body size in birds. Ecology Letters 12:249–259.
Clegg, S. M., F. D. Frentiu, J. Kikkawa, G. Tavecchia, and I. P. F. Owens (2008). 4000 Years of Phenotypic Change in an Island Bird: Heterogeneity of Selection Over Three Microevolutionary Timescales. Evolution 62:2393–2410.
Grenyer, R., C. D. L. Orme, S. F. Jackson, G. H. Thomas, R. G. Davies, T. J. Davies, K. E. Jones, V. A. Olson, R. S. Ridgely, P. C. Rasmussen, T.-S. Ding, et al. (2006). Global distribution and conservation of rare and threatened vertebrates. Nature 444:93–96.
Orme, C. D. L., R. G. Davies, V. A. Olson, G. H. Thomas, T.-S. Ding, P. C. Rasmussen, R. S. Ridgely, A. J. Stattersfield, P. M. Bennett, I. P. F. Owens, T. M. Blackburn, and K. J. Gaston (2006). Global Patterns of Geographic Range Size in Birds. PLOS Biology 4:e208.
Hadfield, J. D., M. D. Burgess, A. Lord, A. B. Phillimore, S. M. Clegg, and I. P. F. Owens (2006). Direct versus indirect sexual selection: genetic basis of colour, size and recruitment in a wild bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273:1347–1353.
Phillimore, A. B., and I. P. F. Owens (2006). Are subspecies useful in evolutionary and conservation biology? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273:1049–1053.
Bennet, P. M., and Owens, I.P.F. (2002). Evolutionary Ecology of Birds: Life Histories, Mating Systems and Extinction. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Dr. Ian Owens
Center Administration and Business Operations, Operations & Staff Development
Email ian.owens@cornell.edu

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Golden-cheeked Warbler by Bryan Calk/Macaulay Library