photo of a Himalayan Monal in flight

A Himalayan monal in flight—one of 61 million images in the lab’s database. (Chris Venetz, Ornis Birding Expeditions / Macaulay Library)

Fine, Feathered, Fascinating Facts about the Lab of Ornithology

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It’s a Big Red gem—a research center, a tourist destination, and a resource for all things avian. How much do you know about it?

Editor's note: Special thanks to Ruth Charles-Pedro ’25, a student science writer at the lab, for her research assistance.

By Joe Wilensky

Nestled in the beautiful 425-acre Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary a few miles from the Ithaca campus, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a member-supported unit of the University whose impact stretches around the globe.

It welcomes and enlightens visitors; works to protect avian habitats and the environment; and conducts research to better understand the living world.

Read on for 21 feathery fascinating facts!

An aerial view of the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Sapsucker Woods
A bird’s-eye view. (Cornell University)

It housed the U.S.’s first grad-level program in ornithology!

The lab was founded in 1915 by Arthur “Doc” Allen 1907, PhD 1911, an avian naturalist and one of the country’s first professors of ornithology. For its first four decades, the program resided in McGraw Hall, within the Department of Entomology.

It moved to Sapsucker Woods in 1957, originally in an observatory at the pond’s edge. The current building and visitor facility, the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, debuted in 2003.

In June 2024, the center reopened following a nearly year-long, multimillion-dollar renovation that added new exhibits and more.

A bird gave the lab’s home its name—and logo!

image of a yellow-bellied sapsucker near a nesting hole in a tree
(Yasushi Nakagawa)

Sapsucker Woods is named after a breeding pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers (a type of woodpecker) that was discovered nesting in the area—a rare sighting for the time and the first ever reported in the Cayuga Lake Basin—by Allen, Louis Agassiz Fuertes 1897, and two other birders. Now common in the region, the species is depicted in the lab’s logo.

The sanctuary is a mecca for nature lovers!

The facility is a draw for birders, hikers, cross-country skiers, and more. It boasts five miles of mulched paths and boardwalks around the pond and through the surrounding wetlands and forest (dogs and bicycles not allowed). Trails are open from dawn to dusk.

The Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary pond at the Laboratory of Ornithology
A tranquil autumn view of the pond. (Cornell University)

It showcases the work of a legendary artist!

Louis Agassiz Fuertes was an Ithaca native—the son of Estevan Fuertes, Cornell’s first professor of civil engineering (and the namesake of Fuertes Observatory).

Louis went on to become one of the most well-known bird artists of the 20th century, and many of his pieces are on display at the lab today.

naturalist and bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes pictured in an office with one of his paintings behind him
(Rare and Manuscript Collections)

It gave birds their start as recording artists!

In 1929—working in Ithaca’s Stewart Park with equipment provided by a movie studio—lab researchers made the first-ever recordings of the North American song sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, and house wren. They also recorded birds in the basement of McGraw Hall with a parabolic microphone system they’d designed.

some of the lab’s earliest commercial recordings of bird sounds and songs on shellac and vinyl albums

Some of those early recordings were later featured on American Bird Songs, the first album of its kind. Distributed by what’s now Cornell University Press, it generated royalties that supported the lab’s recording projects for decades.

It hosts an enormous repository of bird sounds!

Arthur Allen and colleagues with lab audio recording instruments atop a truck in the early 1930s
Early recording equipment in the field. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The lab’s Macaulay Library is the largest collection of bird media—and the largest and oldest collection of wildlife sounds of all kinds—in the world. Originally called the Library of Natural Sounds, it now has more than 2 million audio recordings, 61 million images, and nearly 300,000 videos in its publicly accessible archive.

It gave voice to a Harry Potter beast!

Sounds from the Macaulay Library have been featured in numerous Hollywood films including The Incredibles, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Mosquito Coast. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the voice of the phoenix (Fawkes) came from the screech of a speckled limpkin.

The library has also provided (accurate, species-specific) sounds for the plush bird toys often sold in science centers and museum shops.

A grad student became a famed ‘crane dancer’!

George Archibald, PhD ’77, turned what was once a dilapidated barn at Sapsucker Woods into a facility for studying crane behavior.

George Archibald, PhD ’77 dances with a crane in 1983
(International Crane Foundation)

Archibald went on to co-create the International Crane Foundation, dedicated to the birds’ research and conservation.

He’s famous for imitating them through the use of costumes, puppets, and courtship dances to induce reproduction—a captive breeding technique that has been used to reestablish threatened populations.

In 2018, the lab presented him with its highest award and dedicated a dancing crane sculpture in his honor.

Citizen scientists power its data!

Each year, the lab’s massive eBird global citizen science database aggregates more than 100 million bird sightings and other info contributed by more than a million birdwatchers. The data has helped measure species health, identify population changes, and track biodiversity trends.

In 2023, the New York Times partnered with the lab to encourage readers to use eBird; one memorable element was the release of daily, bird-themed crossword puzzles.

It published a series of adult coloring books!

In the 2010s, the lab produced several volumes featuring intricate—and of course, scientifically accurate—line drawings that bird fans can color in.

No longer in print but findable online, they include Backyard Birds and Blossoms, America’s Favorite Birds, and Birds of Paradise.

Cover of “America’s Favorite Birds” coloring book

Its bird cams have world-wide fans!

One of the lab’s most popular features is its bird cams project, a global network of more than a dozen livestreamed webcams trained on nests, feeders, and habitats. It draws millions of viewers from 175 countries.

Rufous motmot birds seen through the Panama fruit feeder cam
Rufous motmots, as seen through a fruit feeder cam in Panama.

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Some of the most popular cams are located on the Hill—from the ultra-high-def FeederWatch outside the lab’s visitor center to the fan-favorite pair of red-tailed hawks who raise chicks each year above the Big Red athletic fields.

Highlights are featured on a constantly updated YouTube playlist and on Instagram.

The lab listens to more than birds!

Researchers at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics are using audio to study not only birds, but also whales and elephants—to learn where they go, how they live, and what dangers they face.

image of African forest elephants that are being tracked with acoustic sensors by Cornell’s Elephant Listening Project
African forest elephants were tracked with acoustic sensors. (Ana Verahrami ’17)

The center’s Elephant Listening Project began by studying infrasonic communication (below the threshold of human hearing) between forest elephants; its mission has since evolved to encompass conservation.

It publishes field guides!

the covers of the 7 'All About Birds' books

With a wealth of info and images, the regional All About Birds series covers the continental U.S. and bordering provinces of Canada.

While more than 700 bird species populate the continent, the guides (from Princeton University Press) focus on the 200 most commonly found, with additional info and tips on bird watching, photography, building nest boxes, and avian-friendly gardening.

View of Andy Goldsworthy cairn in Sapsucker Woods

Its woods are home to a notable artwork!

Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy’s installation “Sapsucker Cairn” (made of locally quarried Llenroc stone) can be found along one of the lab’s trails in Sapsucker Woods.

Goldsworthy, who was an A.D. White Professor-at-Large in the early 2000s, is known for making art—usually ephemeral—out of natural materials.

In 2008, students assisted in creating the cairn, which still stands.

It hosts a collection of spectacular specimens!

The lab’s Museum of Vertebrates once was a three-story display of skeletons in the center of McGraw Hall.

detail of bird wing specimens from the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

Today, it’s home to thousands of specimens, nests and eggs, wings, skeletons, and more—including extinct species such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, and passenger pigeon.

It publishes its own magazine!

The periodical now known as the quarterly Living Bird Magazine debuted in 1962. Known for its striking photography, it has published features on such topics as how owls catch their prey under snow cover and the science behind the iridescence of hummingbird feathers.

It created an immensely popular bird identification app!

composite image of a blue-winged warbler paired with the Merlin app displayed on a smartphone
The app is available for both iPhone and Android. (Luke Seitz / Macaulay Library)

Merlin Bird ID uses AI to recognize 1,382 species via spectrographic images of their sounds; it can also identify birds from photos taken by the user. Its "Wizard" function can supply and ID after users answer three questions about a sighted bird (regarding size, main colors, and what it was doing).

The app has 19 million downloads worldwide and 3 million active users. In May 2024 alone, 5.4 million people tapped it to identify 215 million birds.

It’s helping protect birds from windows!

Nearly a billion birds are killed by window collisions each year. The lab has been at the forefront of developing solutions, such as treating windows with products that reduce reflections and turning off or redirecting non-essential lighting at night.

methods to deter bird strikes on windows include the use of Acopian Bird Savers, also known as “zen curtains,” pictured here on the windows at the lab’s main facility
Vertical “zen curtains” (like these at the lab's pond viewing area) can reduce bird strikes.

Lab researchers have also been collaborating with a campus group to retrofit windows on the Hill and to adopt more bird-friendly construction standards and designs.

Its visitor center is a veritable gallery of avian art!

Bird art fills the lab’s walls and spaces—most notably, the hundreds of species pictured in the Wall of Birds mural and another huge mural of bird silhouettes.

Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, sculpted Sound Ring near the lab’s library. It focuses on extinct species and those likely to disappear within our lifetime—unless we protect them.

Jane Kim paints the “Wall of Birds" mural at the Lab of Ornithology visitor center in 2015
Artist Jane Kim paints her Wall of Birds mural in 2015. (Diane Tessaglia-Hymes)

It’s sounding the alarm on massive bird losses!

The lab has led the way in studies of bird population health, especially in North America. In 2019, researchers from the lab and other institutions reported in the journal Science that the continent had lost more than 3 billion birds—nearly a third of the population—since 1970.

And … a prof helped save the peregrine falcon!

A conservation initiative led by professor Tom Cade in the late 1960s helped save the birds from extinction.

Cornell professor Tom Cade with a peregrine falcon

Cade’s research linked the pesticide DDT to the thinning of eggshells that would crack during incubation.

He spearheaded the campaign to ban it (which the U.S. did in 1972) and began population recovery efforts.

Over the course of two decades, Cade and colleagues placed more than 1,600 peregrine falcons all over the eastern U.S. The birds have since been removed from the endangered species list, and their breeding population is now estimated at 340,000.

Top: A Himalayan monal in flight—one of 61 million images in the lab’s database. (Photo by Chris Venetz, Ornis Birding Expeditions / Macaulay Library.) All images provided by the Lab of Ornithology, unless otherwise indicated.

Published June 24, 2024


  1. Pete Saracino, Class of 1974

    Great piece.
    But you left out the contribution of Cornell grad student, Tina Morris who is responsible for Hacking the 1st five bald eagles at Montezuma Refuge in the mid 1970s@
    Pete Saracino ’74

  2. ROBERT MORRIS FRIEDMAN, Class of 1954

    How do I get your bird ID on my cell phone? RF

    • Melissa Fleming, Class of 1984

      You can find the Lab of O’s Merlin Bird ID app free wherever you download apps. In addition to the question feature for a bird you are seeing you also can also use it to record bird songs/sounds around you and it will ID them in real time!

  3. Douglas McIlroy, Class of 1954

    This story revived many memories. My mother was a stalwart supporter of the lab, who was once featured in a Living Bird cover story. Her connection to the lab began in summer 1927 just before Fuertes’s tragic railroad-crossing death. Through that connection, I, as a teenager in the 1940s, would join Doc Allen’s early-morning bird walks in Stewart Park. Once I helped Paul Kellogg (probably the other person in the bird-recording picture) record woodcock at the airport.

    For several years I joined my parents in the exuberant May one-day bird “censuses”, in which lab-connected folks scoured the whole Cayuga basin for birds, from before dawn to a communal reading of the checklist at dusk in the Montezuma refuge. In one census we bagged more than 120 species–and we weren’t the champs. I wonder whether this tradition continues.

    Doc Allen was a memorable, but totally approachable, presence. He could identify every bird merely from its slightest peep. His exotic contacts stretched from the ivory-billed woodpecker to Haile Selassie, who gave Allen a spectacular black-and-white monkey-fur quilt.

    • James Lyons, Class of 1981

      Enjoyed reading the memories and inspired me to share mine in its own comment

  4. Randolph (Randy) Little, Class of 1962

    A very nicely written piece; kudos. Let me point out that the parabolic microphone system, which for sound is like a telephoto lens to light, would almost certainly not be used inside a building – its realm of use is in the field.
    Also nice to read Doug McIlroy’s comments. His mother Dorothy was an important volunteer in the early days of the Lab. It was she who jnspired establishment of the Christmas Bird Count in Ithaca, an early example of citizen science.

  5. James Lyons, Class of 1981

    Great article! I enjoyed reading the memories from Douglas Mcilroy ’54 in the comments section and thought I’d add a few of my own.

    I got the birding bug while in college and shortly after entering the work world, I enrolled in (and passed) the Lab’s correspondence class in Ornithology – a hallmark of theirs long before “online learning” but the same idea, only through the mail! I followed up the course with a week’s visit in the summer of 1977, when I attended the CAU’s “Bird Camp” led by Charlie Smith from Cornell and distinguished alum Ernest “Buck” Edwards.

    I returned to Ithaca for two years to get an MBA at what’s now the Johnson School from 1979 to 1981. I got a part-time job with the Lab’s business office, and ended up enjoying many of the CLO’s resources. Those included the famed Monday night lectures, tours of the Hawk Barn, poking around in the Fuertes Library (this was in the old building), and even recording a session (about Woodcocks) for the Lab’s Saturday morning radio show, Know Your Birds.

    I enjoyed getting to know the staff and was honored to hear memories of Doc Allen and Paul Kellogg from those old enough to have worked with them, particularly Lou. Also, meeting so many “names” in the bird world of the early 1980’s, including staffers like Jim Gulledge, David Wickstrom, Greg Bundy, and Andrea Priori from the LNS (Library of Natural Sounds), Phyllis Dague of the Peregrine Fund, as well as lab visitors and affiliates like retired director Olin Sewall Pettingill. field guide author Chandler Robbins, the late Ted Parker and a very young David Sibley.

    And if I’d add one Laboratory of Ornithology highlight to the article, it would be “Cornell brought back the Maine Puffins”, an effort led by Steve Kress, another friend from my days there.

    Forty-plus years later, it’s gratifying to look back on my opportunities with the Lab and especially to see what it has become today!

    • Sarah Lister, Class of 1979

      Yes, thanks for adding Steve and Project Puffin!

    • Malcolm Richardson

      Thanks for posting this recollection. It illustrates what the Lab has accomplished over time and how much can be achieved with some perseverance.

  6. James Lyons, Class of 1981

    Ooops – of course that’s Greg Budney – sorry Greg!

  7. David Wehmeyer

    Your Merlin app is outstanding! I’ve never really been a bird watching person but I am now! Great job👍

  8. Robin Remick, Class of 1995

    Fun-filled article, great stuff! Also, a grateful nod to Andy Johnson for his observation of Peregrine pair once again nesting at Taughannock Falls.

  9. Richard Weir III, Class of 1968

    Your Merlin app is Incredible and so “friendly”, but even more importantly for me is that my 2 granddaughters in 2nd grade at Friends Academy in Locust Valley LI were asked to participate by you folks at the Lab. Then the the class became involved this past semester in reworking the Merlin app to be somewhat more-friendly for young school-age users.
    What a splendid opportunity for the kids in that class, thanks to Cornell Ornithology!

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