CHARLES WALCOTT: As they say, Arthur Allen arrived here in 1915 in the Department of Entomology and went to his chairman and said, you know, I feel surrounded by people who have critters that crawl and fly, but they don't have feathers. And I feel that I'm different. And Needham said, well, why don't you put a label on the door, Laboratory of Ornithology, and maybe that would solve the problem? And that was the origin of the Lab of O. No committees, no going through the administration, no vote of the board of trustees, but just simply the preparation of a label.
When I came in 1957 as a graduate student, the Lab of Ornithology had moved out to Sapsucker Woods, and all of us dreadful graduate students in zoology used to go out and attend Monday night seminars. It was an impressive place. There was a lot going on. Bill Dilger was there, Paul Kellogg was there of the Library of Natural Sounds, and there was a wonderful article in the National Geographic.
In 1981, when I returned to Cornell, I found that the lab had kind of become isolated out. It was more or less a nature center out in Sapsucker Woods. But I thought that Alan's dream of having a place that was an interface between the professional ornithological community and the community of birders was a simply wonderful idea. And it was a dream. And we worked at it.
In 1995 a new director came and was able to transform this dream into reality. And now, as I go to the lab and I look, there's a new building. There's something on the order of 200 staff. There is faculty from various departments of the university, paid for by the laboratory, who are there with graduate students and undergraduates, and it is a lively and exciting place.
Therefore, it is a really special pleasure for me to introduce today's speaker who will tell us how birds can save the world. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology thinks they can. And so here is the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director, John Fitzpatrick. Fitz, it's a great pleasure to welcome you.
JOHN FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Charlie.
Thank you very much, Charlie. I appreciate that introduction. I have to say, it's a particular privilege to be introduced by Charlie Walcott, my predecessor at the lab, the man that I regularly refer to as the turnaround agent for the Cornell Lab. Which, as he'd mentioned, had grown a little sleepy and isolated during its post-Arthur Allen days. Charlie did a number of things that set it up for those of us who are there now to be able to build on those successes. And it's a great pleasure to talk with you, my fellow Cornell professors. There will be a day when I'm sitting in your seat a few years from now, and so I look forward to telling you our story.
We have a lot to tell and I'm not going to be able to cover anything close to what the Cornell Lab is all about today. I'm going to give you just some brief stories that give you the sense of one of the major thrusts of our work right now, and it has to do, ultimately, with the power that birds have. I believe genuinely in the title of this talk, not figuratively but literally. And I hope, by the end of this morning's presentation, you'll see what I mean by the idea.
I have to start by acknowledging what I think everybody in this room already knows. Most educated people worldwide know the fact that the Earth is at a cusp right now with 7 billion people. And the climate itself being affected by our activities, let alone the enormous loss of biodiversity during the anthropocene. We have species like this iconic spoon-billed sandpiper and hundreds of other species of birds and other organisms that are poised at the very edge of disappearance. The very nature of the biological fabric of the Earth is being changed by our enterprises.
And the idea that we actually can reverse that is a noble idea. In fact, I love this picture. It should not have to be limited to Antarctica, where we can literally see the humans and the natural systems living side-by-side comfortably. This should not be limited to a few special places around the Earth. It should be true worldwide.
And if that's going to be true, then my hypothesis is that it does make sense to try to move to a world in which human cultures and natural systems do live side-by-side stably. That's not going to happen by itself. It's going to require two things.
Number one, it's going to require that every human culture value the idea that we could do that. And number two, it's going to need proxies for us to be able to measure how we're doing, whether we're getting closer to that ideal. And it will be no surprise to you at this point that my case today is that birds supply both of these essential ingredients for us to be able to learn how to do this.
Why is that? They're unique in the world in a number of attributes. First of all, and this was recognized by Arthur Allen and has been recognized in science institutes worldwide for hundreds of years, they're fantastic scientific tools. They give us access to the processes of nature in very easily-measurable ways. They live by day, they make sounds, they're enormously variable. They live everywhere. They're great models for how nature works. So they've been scientific tools since Aristotle's day.
Secondly, they are very sensitive environmental indicators. So, as the environment changes, bird populations change. And if we can measure those things we actually have an opportunity to measure the changes in our environment.
Number three, by the billions around the world they move with the seasons. So they literally supply the pulse of the annual cycle of the Earth. And by studying birds we actually literally can begin to measure the pulse of the annual changes, seasonal changes year-to-year.
And finally, and I think probably most importantly, they simply sing to us. They grab us in our hearts aesthetically, not just intellectually. They move us to pay attention to what's going on in nature and to think about it, to ask questions about it, to wonder about it, to advertise it, and to draw more and more people into the idea that we can live and enjoy natural systems.
I like to illustrate this idea that you don't need to know anything about birds to love them. By playing a sound-- as you know, we have the largest collection of natural sound recordings in the world out there at the lab, and I'm going to play you one of them. And just enjoy this sound.
There's a little jazz beat to this. Imagine the privilege that we have to walk by a piece of woods and hear this little solo coming out of the woods. You don't have to know anything at all to enjoy and wonder about this music.
Now let me tell you what this sound is. It's one of these birds. These are the birds that the Polynesian emperors decorated their robes with when they arrived on the islands at Hawaii about 1,500 years ago. These are 'o'os. Every one of the larger islands on Hawai'i had an 'o'o on it. And you just heard an 'o'o. By the turn of the 20th century, four of the five 'o'os had gone extinct, and what you heard was the last surviving 'o'o. It was recorded on the top of Kauai in the Alakai Swamp. You heard the Kauai 'o'o singing, and you literally heard the last 'o'o.
The Kauai 'o'o was believed to have gone extinct, but then it was rediscovered in the 1970s. And this recording, made in the late 1970s was of a male. Now, these birds dueted. And so what you're hearing is the male responding to the playback of his own song, coming in closer to Thane Pratt the recordist, singing, trying to get the female to respond. But there was no female. This was the last 'o'o in the world, singing and waiting for its mate.
Now, let's hear it again.
We hear the--
Now when you hear that sound, you've changed, just during that one minute. Because now when you hear that sound you are thinking about all the ways in which humans have been interacted with the landscape through the ages, the choices that we've made, the mistakes that we've made, the options that we could have made but didn't, the options maybe that we could make in the future, and still have the chance to so that others don't join the 'o'o. That little change inside you over the last minute between hearing a beautiful sound and hearing a sound with the meaning behind it, that's the power that birds have. That's why there's a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
I want to just go to a couple of other stories of similar [INAUDIBLE]. This is for the bird watchers here. It's a nice bird quiz. That little, short curlew bill tells you this is an Eskimo curlew. That's as close as you'll ever get to seeing an Eskimo curlew. This is a picture taken just a few years ago of Cornell University's only specimen of an Eskimo curlew. We stuck it in the grass to get a picture of what it might look like if it were walking around, because they're gone. We took them all.
This is a bird that used to be called the prairie pigeon because it migrated in flocks so huge it reminded the market hunters of the pigeon flocks that they used to shoot. Those pigeon flocks. And they took every last one of them. And they went out to the prairie's in the spring to take the Eskimo curlews because they had actually used up this bird, the most abundant bird that has ever lived on the planet. Passenger pigeons used to migrate over Ithaca when Cornell University was founded, by the hundreds of millions. And we took every last one of them.
By the 1880s these flocks had gotten smaller and smaller. The market hunters in the '80s proudly took pictures of all the game that they were selling. And yes, indeed, this picture, in fact, shows you, in the close up, a few passenger pigeons hanging there next to that market Hunter.
In the 1870s colonies of passenger pigeons nesting in Northern Michigan measured 600 square kilometers, with literally hundreds of millions of nesting pairs. At this site in Petoskey, Michigan-- where, by the way, these are not Sitka spruces or great Douglas firs, those are sugar maples you're looking at there in Petoskey in the 1880s. We'll never see a sugar maple that looks like that. Your grandchildren will never see sugar maples that look like that, because we took them, too.
But by 1881, 10 million passenger pigeons shipped out of that colony. That was the last time they ever nested in Petoskey. And by the '90s they were essentially gone. The last one, as you may know, died in captivity in 1914. And the big question is, did we learn anything from her passing?
How could we do that? How could we take the most abundant bird that has ever lived on planet Earth, from 6 or 7 or 8 billion individuals down to zero in less than 100 years? Supposing we'd had a gas gauge, supposing we could actually have seen during the late 1800s maps like this that actually show the pulse of the annual cycle of the passenger pigeons, where they're wintering, where they're breeding, how many there are. Suppose by 1870 the gas needle had said half-full. And then suddenly, 1875, a quarter full. Supposing we were able to monitor our own behavior.
The possibility exists that we would have said, you know, we're doing something wrong here. We'd like to have passenger pigeons 100 years from now and 500 years from now. We're doing something wrong. We didn't have such a gauge. We didn't see the world this way at that time. It was only during that period, as you all know, where institutions like Cornell University actually began helping human beings understand the idea of natural resource management.
Now the question is today, have we changed yet? Here's a very important story I regard as one of the most-- maybe the most-- important bird conservation story facing the globe right now. This is a remarkable story of the migratory shorebirds that winter in the southern part of the world and breed in the northern part of the world in the Arctic. And many of them, like these bar-tailed godwits stop at key places along the way to fill up their gas tank on their way to the Arctic. And these are bar-tailed godwits.
And the Yellow Sea features, importantly, as you can see from that last slide-- see how they all stop on their way north at the Yellow Sea, regardless of whether they're going to Alaska or Siberia? There are some key spots-- big, rich tidal flats in the Yellow Sea that for millennia have served as the intermediate stop, gas tank-filling agent for migratory birds all across the Asian flyways.
There's a picture of one of these flocks of shorebirds just taken a couple of years ago on one of these places in the Yellow Sea. And you see that little hint of a gray cloud at the very top of this picture? This is the same picture in its entirety. Every one of these tidal flats is being filled in and turned into commercial real estate. We are in the process of watching the passenger pigeon happen again. Not just for one species, but for 100 species as a consequence of changes in land use along the coast of Asia.
Delaware-- it's not all about Asia. Delaware Bay has similar stories, and so on. So the question is, have we changed our behavior yet? What do we need to do to actually make the decision to do that? I want to say that the answer is not entirely gloomy. There are good stories to tell. Here's one of them.
We're on the top of Maui here, looking northeastward at one of the wettest places on Earth. The East Maui-- we're at the Haleakala Crater, if you've ever been to that park in East Maui. Underneath that cloud is one of the richest, darkest, wettest rainforests, cloud forests on the planet. And that forest itself is filled with amazing birds, including these. Several of which-- like the Maui parrotbill on top and the crested honeycreeper right below it-- several of which were believed extinct in the 1950s, but rediscovered.
And the rediscovery of those birds by the 1960s began to galvanize organizations like the Nature Conservancy and local watershed partnerships to come together and actually preserve that place. And now today that entire windward slope of East Maui is protected in a remarkable consortium of land ownerships called the East Maui watershed partnership. How did that come about? It's the power of birds.
That's not a big surprise to many of you. You probably all know the story, much of which owes its origin right here at Cornell University, the research that showed why the peregrine Falcon was declining towards extinction, and the fantastic recovery program that was begun by Professor Tom Cade right here in Ithaca. We learned, thanks to studying the Peregrine Falcon, that we were poisoning ourselves. Not just the falcons, but ourselves with pesticides such as DDT. We changed our behavior, we did a little bit of work with the falcons, and lo and behold, the Falcon came off the endangered species list by the year 2000 and is now, today, more abundant probably in the continental US than it's been for 150 years.
We can actually learn. We can change our behavior and lo and behold, the biological systems respond positively when we do that. Another emblem of the Endangered Species Act, the spotted owl, raised a lot of controversy when it was first put on the list in the 1990s.
And I have a particular message about the spotted owl because we pay attention to big brown-eyed birds like this, but I want to make sure you understand the scale of the spotted owl and what the Endangered Species Act is all about. Here's is the same picture. There's the owl in its proper scale, in its place.
And the Endangered Species Act actually, literally, is not about the owl. The Act itself, in the wisdom of Congress-- there was wisdom in Congress. The Act itself declares the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect the ecosystems upon which endangered species depend. The Endangered Species Act recognizes specifically that the key to the species is the barometer that it represents for an ecosystem. And the ecosystem is the one that requires protection.
How did a sentence as wise as that get put into a bill, by the way, in the early 1970s? When we think about heroes of environmental protection in the United States, there is no individual that comes to mind any higher and any more greatly than this remarkable man, Teddy Roosevelt, who, 110 years ago, began to have conservation of natural resources become part of the fabric of American law, declaring National Wildlife refuges. Who'd ever heard of that before? So the hero of the American environmental and conservation movement certainly was a president of the United States.
Now, the question I want to ask is, who's the second most important environmental president in the United States? It's amazing, because I loathed this guy when I was in college. But this man is the man who signed the Endangered Species Act. He signed the Clean Air Act. He signed the Clean Water Act. Under Nixon, NEPA came into being. Under Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was created.
How the heck did that happen? There's an answer. And the answer lies in this individual. I think you guys, as a retired professors, all probably recognize this Watergate villain, right? John Ehrlichman did time for the Watergate thing. He was Nixon's chief domestic advisor. Ehrlichman was a birdwatcher, an Eagle Scout, an avid outdoorsman, and Erlichman recognized the point that we were in history when he could work with agencies in the government and bring together, one by one, these acts. Because Richard Nixon said that Erlichman-- I don't know anything at all about the environment. That's your thing. You just tell me what to sign and I'll sign it. Ehrlichman went about doing his work, and we have this 1970s blossoming of environmental law as a consequence. The power of one individual, and the power of birds.
Now it's really important that I want to spend the rest of the time today talking about what's much more important in many respects than endangered species, and that is all the rest of the species that are out there. We have lots of species out there that are singing to us all the time, like this beautiful wood thrush which is a few weeks away from-- they're still in Honduras and Belize right now, but in a few weeks they'll be back, singing in our woods. But they'll be back in smaller and smaller numbers every year if the trends that have gone on over the last 50 years continue.
So the wood thrush is telling us something. In fact, it's not just the wood thrush that's telling us something. There are a wide variety of species on every continent in the world that are telling us a similar thing. Namely, their populations are going down.
These are species that are not on the endangered species list. They're not yet Kauai 'o'os, but they're heading there. And our opportunity right now is to say, why are they heading there and what could we change that might actually stem the tide?
This is a species, by the way, that's in your backyard. One of the most widespread birds of North America, also one of the most rapidly-declining species on the continent right now, and that's the common northern flicker. A bird, by the way, of disturbed habitats and specializing on dead trees. Now, humans hate dead trees. We take them down all the time. A tree is dying-- Foresters hate dead trees. They say, let's liven the forest up. Let's make the forest healthy, let's get rid of the dead wood. A healthy forest is filled with dead and dying wood. We tend to take that away. So that's one big story for the flickers.
And I want to give you an illustration about disturbed habitats and destruction of habitats that tells a really important story that ties back to my overall theme, and it has to do with a species that I study, which is why I have inserted it into this talk. This is a bird that has, it turns out, a very, very close relationship with this disturbance that happens in Florida more regularly than it happens anywhere else in the North American continent. Central Florida is the lightning capital of North America. There are more people killed in Florida by lightning every year than the rest of North America combined. You take it seriously when you're there in the summertime.
Where you have lightning at that kind of frequency, and have for millennia, you always have fire. Where you have fire you have vegetation communities that, if they weren't evolved to handle fire, they're gone. So all that's left in a place that is regularly ignited like that are plants that have actually evolved strategies to respond to the fact that they're going to burn.
And indeed, the bird that I study is restricted to one of these special habitats in central Florida. It's the only species of bird entirely limited to Florida, which is the Florida scrub jay. And I've been working on this bird since 1972. We have a very long-term study underway on this now-endangered species. And it tells us a really interesting story. As you can see by these numbers, the numbers have steadily going down. So this bird is not out of the woods. It's getting worse and worse as time goes along. And you can see by the red dots there how patchily-distributed this bird is in Florida.
Where I study it is at this beautiful, permanently protected area called Archbold Biological Station, a spectacular ecological research facility which is actually where I lived before coming here, courtesy of Charlie's hiring me-- Charlie and Dave's hiring me.
We get to study this bird at absurdly close range because it's remarkably tamable. So we get to know everything there is about their lives. We band them as individuals, we know them until they die, up to 15-years-old, and they live in territories. This is a territory map from one of our years. That little orange rectangle is the building you saw in the previous picture. These birds live in a mosaic of defended territories year-round.
And inside each territory there's a mated pair of birds, and they raise a family that is a cooperative family values system that's a really wonderful behavioral story for a different lecture someday. Key to today's point is that we were watching during the 1970s and '80s populations around us go steadily down, just like this. And we began to formulate the hypothesis that these birds had a tight relationship with-- you guessed it-- lightning and fire.
So we constructed an experiment. And in ecology experiments are not laboratory things that last for a day or a week or a month. Our experiment is still underway. We began it in 1990 by lighting this big tract on fire. And we did a great job. We burned it up. Literally blackened this entire tract.
And, lo and behold, the scrub jay told us a story. That after its habitat burns, its population instantly begins to recover. But only recovers up to a point, lives along for a few years at that high point, but then-- by the way, our experiment was to prohibit fire for the next decade or two or three. So we lit it in 1990, then we worked like crazy to not let it burn for the next 20 years because we wanted nature to tell us the natural fire cycle of the Florida scrub jay. And they did.
As you can see, there is a window of optimality about 8 or 10 years after a fire. And it lasts for a few years, but doesn't last very long. Guess why? Because that's about the frequency at which fires used to ignite these habitats so that birds began to actually evolve in response to the need for the place to open up again.
So as we saw that happening, mimicking, essentially, exactly the population decline that began our experiment, what did we do 20 years later? We did it again. Burned it up. That's a picture in June of 2010 when we made the decision, time to do this all over again. We hypothesized that, once again, repeatability is an important part of science and, lo and behold, the population is currently in the process of recovering just as it did the first time. This is a bird that requires fire as much as it requires water. Just in slightly different frequencies.
And it turns out, this is not just about the bird, right? This is about this place that is filled with plants and animals that show exactly the same pattern. As fires come, the population responds. As fires are inhibited, the population declines and ultimately goes extinct. Diversity declines in the absence of fire. Habitats require fire to stay healthy. Disturbance is part of the story in ecological systems worldwide. This is now a new paradigm in ecology and conservation all together.
So we understand now, in Florida and in countless other habitats across the planet, burn it and they will live. And by the way, I just have to announce, as I have been trying to announce for the last 10 or 15 years now as publicly as I can-- as publicly as I can-- Smokey the Bear, he was wrong. It's not correct that wildfire is a terrible thing. Wildfire is a perfectly natural part of ecological systems across the entire planet and I am dying someday, by the way, to make the anti Bambi movie that gives hunters and fire their just desserts in terms of-- their just due in terms of how positive they can be for environmental protection.
So where you have fire you have habitats that require it, that are healthy because of it, and you have species that adapt to those habitats that live in that. And those species, it turns out-- and here's back to my central point-- those species allow us to actually measure how the habitat is doing. Measure the Florida scrub jay population, it's telling you something about the entire system underneath it.
And, importantly, every habitat in the world has bird species that can tell us this. Now you're getting the point. Every place like the prairies out here have the meadowlarks, have the prairie chickens, and so on. The northern rocky coasts across the world have the puffins and puffin relatives that talk to us about the fish populations offshore and so on.
So now I want to ask this question. What is it about birds that draws us-- that draws us and gives us the opportunity to ask these questions so effectively? And the key is that, everybody loves them. It turns out, time after time for the last 25 years as surveys have asked Americans, what do you do to enjoy nature? What do you do to enjoy the outdoors? It turns out that tens of millions of us, no doubt including a number of you, love to watch birds, whether it's just at your feeders or actually going out to the woods and watching them specifically or taking a trip to see them. There's tens of millions of people who love to watch birds.
Why is that important? Because it's an army. It's an army. And supposing we could train this army, encourage this army, give incentives for this army to not just let what they see evaporate, but instead collect what they're seeing in the form of data.
That's a major reason why there is a Cornell laboratory of Ornithology. Our mission statement, a simple 17-word mission. "Interpret and conserve the earth's biological diversity." We're not a golf shop, although I love to play golf. We're not a shop about just having fun watching birds. We're a shop with a mission for interpreting and conserving earth's biological diversity, and we're using birds as a tool for that.
We do it with education, we do it with research, and we do it with this amazing thing that I'll spend the rest of my few minutes here talking about, namely citizen science. The idea that we can actually engage the distributed public as sensors in the process of understanding real questions about the natural world.
Now I'm talking to a Cornell-friendly audience, and you all probably have been to the Lab of Ornithology. What very few people recognize now about the Lab of Ornithology, because we've grown quite a bit over the last couple decades, is that we are a lot of different things. A really good thorough tour of the entire operation takes several hours, literally two or three hours, just to show the different kinds of things that we're doing out there. And I can't possibly talk about all of them today, but I want to just acknowledge that those are the names of the different kinds of programs that we have there, each with a very capable, motivated, charismatic leader at the helm of it.
We're doing lots of things in the area of communication as well as science and training. In fact, I say that's my little one-sentence elevator speech. The lab is a science and training shop on the one hand and a communication shop on the other. And as Charlie himself just put it, our job is not just to do research and to train graduate students and post-docs, but it's also to communicate to the rest of the planet why this stuff is important and what we can learn from it.
So, in particular, the rest of my words refer to this sort of zone in the middle where citizen science is front and center. We use it to train teachers how to use birds in teaching middle school stem processes. We use it to turn on kids in inner cities to the idea that watching natural things gives you huge power and opens a whole world of curiosity for you.
Increasingly we are using the opportunities of live internet feeds of birds, birds nests, bird activities and so on to teach real biology in real time. We love the story that sort of turned us on to the power of live bird cameras in our Owl-cam, which was several years ago that we began doing this.
This is a barn owl. And in that barn own box, lo and behold, the first year we put that up we and the barn owl biologists around the country learned something interesting about barn owls. They do it every night. Every single night, many times every night. They do it before their eggs are laid, they do it as they're laying eggs, they do it as the kids are growing up, they do it as the nestlings are beginning to be fledglings. The male comes in to the box, delivers a morsel of rat, and they love it. Barn owl biologists had never known that this process of mate maintenance was a feature not just of barn owls but, it turns out, of most owls.
By watching closely the details of the living process, people all over the world are now getting to understand some really interesting fundamental things about nature, not all of which we necessarily empathize with. I'm just putting this in because this was last spring as the barn owls were hatching. And because of the nature of the hatching rates in this nest we recognized-- and what had happened in some previous years-- that there was a strong possibility that you were going to begin to see these owls eat one another in the nest. So in our process now we have to learn to actually warn the viewers of some things that they might see that they might regard as distasteful. So if you think that might be distasteful, go to a different camera.
I think you all know by now that we had some beautiful few years of great blue herons nesting at the Sapsucker Woods pond. That nest and the cameras that we put in that nest really showed us the power of individuals. We had 2 and 1/2 million people following the fates of these herons over a couple of years.
And, of course, we have the fantastic, most famous red-tailed hawks on the planet right now-- Ezra and Big Red, named by the community-- who are nesting every year and-- let's knock on wood-- let's hope that they're doing it again this coming spring out by the soccer fields right here on the Ag School. And very, very popular with people all over the planet-- again, 2 and 1/2 million people or so watch this and they have a lot of fun in classes, they have a lot of artistic interpretations of these things, and we get an enormous amount of feedback from the general public that indicates for real that they love spending a few minutes a day during the spring here on the Cornell campus watching what's going on in the real world lives of these hawks and their kids.
But we began in the 1990s to experiment with a very, very important idea. And this was the era in which the internet was just beginning to spread, and we had the idea that we could begin to use it to actually engage people to do things that we actually asked them to go out and do. And the first, most important versions of this were actually seeing, could we actually get the general public to map an endangered species? And indeed we could, with the cerulean warbler and others. So we began to recognize there's a power that we have in organizing what people want to do as a hobby into something that can become much more powerful as an information delivering device.
And so in the late 1990s we invented this thing, the Great Backyard Bird Count, which maybe some of you participated in. It just finished over the Valentine's Day weekend. This was the first time that we experimented with the idea that the internet could supply the tool for engaging observations to come in in an organized way.
The first year we did it-- I think was 1997-- about 14,000 checklists. Last year almost-- over 150,000 checklists. And we went global couple of years ago and now we're actually gaining information from all over the planet. We had 5,000 species observed last year.
And this year, as a result of this past weekend, the checklists are still coming in. They can come in over the next few days for that weekend's count, but we're estimating we're going to get 160,000 checklists from all over the world with something-- right now it's at 5,270 in terms of species. That's a half of the world's bird species. It's spreading. The idea is catching on. Every single country in the world is participating in this process. So we are on to something really amazing.
And I just wanted to tell you a very quick story, not so much about the biology of this species, but it's an interesting species. This is the Eurasian collared-dove. We don't see them around Ithaca yet. But this is a bird that immigrated to the New World in the 1980s, began to spread through Florida, and by the mid-2000s had begun, as you can see on the right hand map, populating the Southern US.
I'm just going to show you data from the Great Backyard Bird Count, this weekend snapshot in February, as time went on. Watch the spread of this bird. 2006. Watch the west coast, watch the prairies. 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010. Just over the course of a few years, massive spread of this one species across the Southern and Western US. 2011, widespread.
Interestingly, biologically the Northeast is still cut off. That's its own story. Really, my point is not the biology of the Eurasian collared-dove and, by the way, I think I went in and grabbed today-- just this morning I took-- this is-- the Great Backyard Bird Count just finished the map, as it's accumulating for Eurasian collared-dove today.
Interesting biological story. The key is, look at all of the information that's in here. from one weekend of effort by some people across the US who took the time to just tell us what they'd seen. The information content of these-- and there are 450 species of birds in North America right now. The information content is unbelievable.
And so that realization, as it happens, after a couple of years of experimenting and seeing the growth and the popularity of this made us decide we had to do this for real, we had to create an opportunity functionally for a Great Backyard Bird Count any day, any time, any place around the planet. And so we created this thing.
And the rest of the few minutes today I'm referring to work on this project which has become, right now at the Lab of Ornithology, functionally the backbone project in citizen science. It is now the largest database of biodiversity information in the world, and it's growing at a rate greater than any other database in the world.
The idea basically is what you already understand. Tell us what you saw. Give us some information, we will archive it and we will turn it around and disseminate it back around. And why should we be doing all this? Because fundamentally we are convinced that we can use this information to actually begin to go back to places and figure out what they need to be protected. So we can turn the bird information back around into actions on the ground with partners across the planet, to actually begin to say, now I understand what the changes are, here's what we can do to make the changes stabilize.
The key to eBird is that it's also a personal tool. I just grabbed a shot here of my own backyard and showing you how sparrows come and go of several different species. In the winter and the spring we have those four species. You can see by summertime my yard is pretty devoid of these natural populations of sparrows. They're mostly up north. In the fall, one by one, they come in. Some of them pass through, like fox sparrow, and leave. Others stay the winter, like the juncos and tree sparrows.
This is just my yard and my thing, but you can do snapshots of your own yard or ask questions of any place that you want to go to any time. You can also say, as I did this morning, if I wanted to go see a snowy owl, where are they right now? And so I popped in this morning and asked eBird, where are the snowy owls over the last two weeks in our area? And here's the answer.
This is actually not live, but it was live this morning. You see the Finger Lakes there. And it turns out, there are snowy owls right at the top end of Cayuga. Lo and behold, you can actually pop on that thing and ask the question, who's seen them and how many were there and what were the dates? And there's the information.
And actually now eBird has the capacity for you, when you see the snowy owl, to snap a picture and put that picture into your database. And here's a picture of the snowy owl that was seen by-- I hope you don't mind, Dave Kennedy-- by Dave Kennedy and the photograph just a few days ago. So you can actually use this as a tool for figuring out where you want to go birding.
These sort of personal tools were the key to eBird's becoming successful. And, as our Director of Information Science puts it, eBird began to be a globally-important citizen science project when it stopped trying to be a citizen science project but instead said, what can I do to provide the service that bird watchers wish they had? And as that begins to grow, they begin to use it, expand the use of it, tell their neighbors and friends around the world about it, and lo and behold, it begins to grow. And so it becomes a really vital tool. And we can use it to, for example, plan trips. You can bar chart places that you're interested in.
Everybody always wants to know, what do you do about the bad apple data? And we have a variety of systems in place now for recognizing that certain data are erroneous. We have filters of a variety of kinds and we have a network of about 1,800 editors who, if an interesting observation is confirmed by the observer, the editor can actually contact the individual and ascertain whether it's good or not.
The key point is, it's spreading. This is not a map of the world. This is a map of eBird localities. You can see we're a little thin in Siberia. We're trying to do something about that. But increasingly, worldwide, country after country, they're recognizing the local individuals and the local groups and the ornithological societies, they're recognizing this is an enormously powerful, globally-functioning tool. And the popularity is continuing to increase approximately 30% to 35% annually ever since we've launched in 2002.
So we're in a good position right now. We're where every startup company wants to be. Suddenly taking off, suddenly worrying about how can we handle all of this information. And the answer is, we begin to work hand-in-hand with the high-performance computational community, the computer science and information science community which, as you know here at Cornell, is hugely powerful and diverse. Working with partners to actually begin to combine the eBird observation data with a number of variables of landscape use where we can begin to create, literally, models of bird distributions, as you're seeing on the right. And I'm going to show you a few more of these here.
Now we have, by the process here that you've just learned about, become part of the era of big data science. We recently-- I'll show you in a couple of slides that model, but let me just tell you that this is what you look at when you typically open a bird book and ask the question, what's the distribution of a prothonotary warbler? For 200 years the answer has been, it's a blob. It's a blob on a map, right? And the blobs have different shapes depending on the species, but basically that's what you see when you ask the question, where does this bird occur?
Using eBird and the modeling that we are now in the process of working on and pioneering, frankly, here at Cornell, with a rich group of partners in several different departments and colleges, here is what the distribution of breeding prothonotary warblers actually looks like. Very different from the blobs. It shows you areas of thin distribution, it shows you huge areas of concentration.
Now, think in terms of a conservationist. What do I-- where would I go if I wanted to really work on protecting populations of prothonotary warblers? Now we have information for the first time that can tell us that.
Most importantly now, this is a planet, not just a country. And what we have is the opportunity to watch the entire annual cycle of birds, like this magnolia warbler. We're looking right now at April, May, the June breeding season up here in the far North, a few magnolia warblers around us in the Great Lakes area. And by the end of August they begin to move back South and head back down. And look at what they tell us about their wintering distribution. The entire global population of magnolia warblers winters on the Yucatan Peninsula and just dribbles across to the South of it.
One other example. This is a Western North American breeding bird, the Townsend's warbler. You can see it's wintering in two different places. One of them down on the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Guatemala, Southern Mexico, and then the other population along the west coast. Here comes the migration. We're now in may. Up they go to the Pacific Northwest, breeding up into Alaska. The last few of them dribble down into Washington and Oregon. July, they're still up there. You can just begin to see them move in August already by mid-August they're down here in Mexico, and here they come on down to Southern Mexico and Guatemala.
These are real data gathered by eBird-generated information and modeled with the landscape variables of 200 different coverages using satellite information. Nobody has ever done this before. Nobody's ever done this before for any species.
We asked the question just a few weeks ago, literally, could we do this at the community level? And so we said, let's grab a handful of 30 species that we know winter in Central America, largely. Can we put those together and actually ask what the species-richness community looks like for this assemblage of species? And the answer is, yes, it works.
In this map the whitest parts are 17 to 20 species, and there is the distribution across North America of that handful of species. The whitest, again, I think is 17. And you can Ithaca's in that zone of high diversity in the summertime. And then look at how tiny the concentration is of all of those 30 species of birds in winter time. This map itself is already beginning to be used by conservation organizations to illustrate the importance of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Yucatan Peninsula for a huge assemblage of highly-mobile birds.
And now for fun. Now that you understand that we can look at the whole range of a species, I want to show you this-- what we've come to refer to as the dancing balls. And this actually went viral last week or two weeks ago when it was published. Every blue dot in this map is the center of a species, so it's an average bird for a species. OK? You saw whole-species distributions. You're now looking at 120 species where each dot is the centroid for one species. OK? And by the way, right now you're in January 8th. What does the year cycle look like for these 120 species? Here's what it looks like.
By January they're already moving north from the southern tips. Look at the importance of the Caribbean in April. Here they come up to their North American breeding zones. Barely stop. They barely stop. By midsummer-- what we think of as midsummer they think of as early fall they're already moving South.
Look at the general eastward motion of many of those northern-distributed species. Many of them go right out over the Atlantic instead of coming through the land, and here they come down. By December they're still moving south, and by January they're back where they went. The pulse of the planet we can now literally document using birds.
So it's very clear to us that this is not a North American story. It's certainly not an Ithaca story. It's not a Cornell story. It's not a North American story. It's a global story. So little by little, as fast as we can do it, we are now making partnerships across the planet, translating all of these tools into all of the appropriate languages and cultures to get the entire world to think about it. We're working with the US government every year in creation of State of the Birds reports so that federal and state agencies can use these data to make specific plans in their places.
We have a remarkable trial underway in California partnering with the Nature Conservancy to actually do dynamic conservation where we're using our maps of waterfowl and shorebird distributions in the Central Valley. This is the Central Valley tipped on its side here.
And you can see what the Central Valley is. It's a huge agricultural zone, and so we're working with the Nature Conservancy particularly with the rice farmers to ask them if they can pay attention to where-- if we can pay attention to where the pintails winter-- I'm just going to skip that and just show you that pintails in the Central Valley have some specifically important spots for them in the winter time, but they typically arrive before the rice farmers flood their fields.
And the Nature Conservancy is now using eBird data to identify which rice farmers to pay to flood their fields six weeks early to supply the migratory shorebirds with what they need during this very sensitive period of their migratory pathways. I'm just going to hurry through that.
I want to conclude by just saying something really important about you birders and you potential birders. Many people think bird watching is about finding that rare bird, but in fact what we're discovering is that information about the pintails and even about the robins is the information that tells us most about our relationship with the landscape.
And so what we are doing, we think, is empowering everybody regardless of your level of skill to say, I can actually help make a difference. And I'm not talking about the people in the suburbs of North America, I'm talking about people in the rain forests of South America and Africa and people in the scrubs of Australia and the grasslands-- those few remaining grasslands of India. Anything that you see in terms of a bird population is informative, it turns out.
And my hypothesis is that we are at the outset of being able to create a new relationship between humans and the Earth in which we actually serve, literally, as real-time monitors for how the environment is doing. It's literally the case that we are on the outset of being able to say, these birds, because of the information they're giving us and because of the power of the internet, can help us save the world, save the natural places, save the natural systems of the world because they tell us so much about how we're doing.
So I just want to close with this shot. It's a shot familiar to everybody here in one way or another. This is a picture of Cascadilla Creek, the Ellis Hollow. It's where I live. This is what Molly and I get to look out at from our deck, in the fall, in this case. Of course, as you know, it looks like this more often than we wish.
But don't look at this and see my place. You can close your eyes and actually see your place because every single one of you has a place. Everybody watching this has a place. Everybody in the world has a place.
We are in a position now, again, thanks to the power of the internet and the power of computational sciences and the power of birds, we can actually measure how we're doing in the process of living side by side with planet Earth. It is, after all, our only home. It's our origin. And for many of us, it's our house of worship. We can do this. Birds are going to help us do this and they are going to help us figure out how we can fit in with all this grandeur. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Birds can save the world. So says John Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. In his Feb. 18, 2016 lecture to the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti, Fitzpatrick explains how. As part of the Lab’s e-Bird program, volunteers all over the world are reporting bird sightings. Based on this data, federal and local agencies are setting aside land from development and making other changes to protect bird species and hence the environment.