View from Sapsucker Woods: Why a Cornell Lab?

From the spring 2021 edition of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In 2010, when I was describing to our Board of Directors the need to launch our discovery campaign to raise capital for the Cornell Lab, one phrase came to mind: “Frankly, the world could use a dozen ornithology laboratories, but damn it the hell there has to be at least one who is REALLY GREAT! “

The concept had legs, the campaign was a success, and I’ve used that term a lot since then (often with more colorful language). As we begin to move on to a great new CEO, I am moved to wonder why this statement is true. Why is there a Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Why does the world need a really great one that keeps pushing to get better?


The earth is home to almost as many species of ants as there are birds (roughly 11,000), so the idea occurred to me to direct my question to the best naturalist I know, renowned entomologist and ant specialist Mark Deyrup at Archbold Biological Station in Florida. Given the comparable numbers, why is there no comparable myrmecology laboratory? His answer was Vintage Deyrup.

“Objectively, ants are as interesting as birds, but their fan base is as small as they are,” said Deyrup. “Their beauty, diversity and cool demeanor are hidden behind their small size.”

Ant colonies are called “superorganisms” because, as a collective whole, they are made up of thousands of individuals. But as Deyrup put it: “A mistake that is part of a superorganism is still just a mistake.”

“Birds, on the other hand, occupy a sweet spot,” he said. “Big enough to be easily observed, but small enough that there is room for many of them and great diversity in the world.”

Then he thought about how people perceive birds. Birds’ behaviors and calls “expand human consciousness well beyond our own senses in a natural world, so that it is adaptable to watch out for birds,” said Deyrup. “Hearing birds can tell us important, even important things about our immediate surroundings … who has ever heard of a hamster in a coal mine?

“Whatever the evolutionary reasons,” he concluded, “the personal passion for birds arises from our accumulated individual relationships with them. This passion goes well beyond simple adaptive responses and is becoming increasingly altruistic for most of us.”

I was particularly impressed by this last point. Birds are attractive enough, active enough, diverse enough, ubiquitous enough, but also vulnerable enough to pull us out of us, to care for their lives, to think about their world.

We instinctively appreciate how wonderful it is to have creatures such as hummingbirds and ostriches, toucans and penguins, cardinals and vultures populate our world. Bird migrations, recorded in poems and songs over the centuries, connect us to the earth’s annual heartbeat. Birds show us stewards of the earth what we are doing right and they inspire us to fight against what we are doing wrong.

The world needs a great ornithology laboratory because birds have immense power to pull us out, to respect and care for the needs of individual life outside of our own. Even when they serve our senses, awaken our wonder and teach us something about nature, birds inspire us to act nobly. Our job – the job of the laboratory – is to do everything we can to connect people everywhere with all this power. Indeed, the world would be a lot poorer without a great place dedicated to this job.