Mike Webster

Director, Macaulay Library

Expertise

Animal Behavior • Animal Communication • Evolution • Bird Song • Breeding Biology

I wear two hats at the Lab. First, I am Director of the Macaulay Library, which is a media collection dedicated to capturing and preserving recordings (audio, video, and photos) that capture the behaviors of wild birds and other animals. In this role my goal is to grow the collection and make it as accessible and useful as possible for people who want to use our recordings for research and for educational outreach.

Second, I am also a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. In this role I do research on, and also teach classes about, animal communication and behavior. Through my research and teaching I aim for a better understanding of how and why animals communicate with each other, and also what accounts for the evolution of the incredible diversity of signals that we see in nature (think of the diversity of bird songs, plumage colors, and elaborate displays).

Why do I do this? Quite simply because there is nothing more fascinating than understanding the forces that have shaped the diverse behaviors we see in nature today. I am excited to study these forces, and also to help guide a research collection that can help others understand, learn about, and preserve the diversity of life on our planet.

My fascination with nature and animal behavior goes back to childhood, as I was always an “outdoorsy” type and enjoyed losing myself in wild places. I didn’t know how to turn that passion into a profession, though, and so I stumbled into college thinking that I might be a marine biologist (until I discovered that I wasn’t interested in plankton) or a veterinarian (until I discovered that I was no good at anatomy). On a whim, rather late in my college career, I took a course in animal behavior, and my fate was sealed. Ever since that course I have devoted myself to watching, and working to understand, what animals do and why they do it.

Education

Ph.D., Cornell University
B.A., University of California, San Diego

Inspirational Bird

My Ph.D. dissertation focused on the behavior of a Neotropical bird, the Montezuma Oropendola. Because of this, one of my favorite quotes is by the great Neotropical ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who in 1954 described the song of the male Montezuma Oropendola as “a long-drawn, far-carrying liquid gurgle, an undulatory sound ascending in pitch. When heard in the distance it is most melodious, but when the performer is nearby his screeching overtones somewhat mar the effect.”

Recent Publications

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