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Through Citizen Science, Ornithologist John W. Fitzpatrick Helps Birders Forge a ‘New Relationship with the Planet’

After a half-century of researching birds around the world – from remote mountain ranges in Peru to the scrublands of Florida – ornithologist John W. Fitzpatrick still gets a thrill observing the winged creatures that call his backyard home.

headshot of John W. Fitzpatrick with binoculars
John W. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D. Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“Birds do something to our brains like nothing else does,” says Fitzpatrick, a AAAS Fellow and executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They (birds) are very powerful answers to our curiosity about how nature works.”

This fascination is flourishing among the American public. Bird-watching – once stereotyped as a pastime for geeks or retirees – is growing in popularity, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic which encouraged many to adopt outdoor hobbies or rediscover the natural beauty just outside their windows. The sightings of birds have proven to be valuable for scientists, too.

Thanks to Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, birders can record their sightings on the website eBird, a centralized repository of bird observations that just celebrated one billion total identifications chronicling the movement of avian populations across the globe.

The site, founded in 2002, allows users to submit checklists noting the birds detected during a set period of time at a certain place. The result is a publicly accessible catalog of bird whereabouts – migration patterns, population concentrations and more – that’s frequently referenced by bird researchers.

“It’s almost real time measurement of a global biological phenomenon,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s nothing short of moving people toward a new relationship with the planet.”

For example, a recent study used eBird data overlayed with air quality metrics to show how air pollution regulations intended to help humans have positively impacted birds.

Another team of researchers looked at eBird sightings in cities to show how light pollution and tree cover impact migratory bird patterns. The results have implications for urban planning initiatives to plant more trees and launch lights-out programs to aid bird conservation.

Sightings reported by eBirders have also helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor the rebound of the bald eagle.

Birds, Fitzpatrick says, are one of “the most accessible beacons of environmental health.” For example, waning bird populations in certain areas can alert scientists to larger environmental issues such as pollution problems or climate change.

Most people, though, appreciate birds for more whimsical reasons. “They are colorful. They fly. They sing. They give us free music in the woods,” says Fitzpatrick. “They do all these things that stimulate both sides of our brain at the same time.”

Growing up in rural Minnesota, Fitzpatrick caught the birding bug early, picking up his first binoculars at the age of 5. Supportive neighborhood adults nurtured his interest. Among Fitzpatrick’s early influences was Francis Lee Jaques, a famous wildlife artist who entertained his young neighbor with paintings of birds and stories about his travels around the world.

At age 6, bird-watching “hit a spark, bigtime,” Fitzpatrick says. The year was 1957, and he participated in his first Christmas Bird Count, an early winter census of birds conducted by the National Audubon Society.

A vinyl record of bird songs produced by Cornell University was “my audio bible,” he says. By first grade, Fitzpatrick was a committed birdwatcher, occasionally getting grief from classmates for being the “nature boy.”

In 1970, he was accepted to Harvard University – a place he considers formative to his success. During his undergraduate years, Fitzpatrick studied biology and spent hours cataloguing dead birds at the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. In 1972, he interned at Archbold Biological Station and began researching the Florida scrub-jay, the only bird found solely in Florida.

Fifty years later, Fitzpatrick is still involved with Florida scrub-jay research, mapping their movements. The species is currently threatened, losing its habitat to housing development and agriculture.

“People will ask … what the hell can you possibly learn at this point after studying the same population?” he says. “We’ve got more questions now than we had at the beginning.”

Technologies such as DNA sequencing and genomics, he says, opened the door to new questions that weren’t possible to answer before.

“Curiosity is never finished,” he says.

Fitzpatrick continued his work on the Florida scrub-jay as well as on a very large family of birds known as Tyrant flycatchers even after he was offered a job at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1977. There, he spent 12 years, eventually rising to chair of the museum’s zoology department.

In 1995, he joined Cornell University as Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. During his time there, he grew the lab from a few dozen employees working out of trailers and a small cinder-block observatory to having a staff of 250 and a magnificent 90,000 square foot science building.

Under Fitzpatrick’s watch, Cornell University has digitized millions of photos and videos and launched the Merlin bird identification app. On the app, users answer a few questions about a bird’s location, behavior, color and size. Merlin then harnesses data from eBird to find a likely match based on other species spotted in the same area. Merlin recently introduced a pioneering new sound ID feature that constitutes the world’s first “Shazam” for birds.

Over the years, eBird has also become a powerful social network connecting birders with one another. In turn, these hobbyists yielded a database capable of pinpointing where birds move every day of the year.

There are checks and balances, of course. Each bird entry goes through a filter whereby unusual sightings are independently investigated by one of more than 2,500 volunteers.

eBird platform usage has grown by more than 20 percent annually since its launch, and Fitzpatrick doesn’t expect things to slow down – even after he steps down from the lab’s directorship this summer. In his spare time, he will continue to teach and inspire the next generation of ornithologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists.

“Bird-watching and science are not the same thing, but birdwatchers can convert pretty quickly to thinking like scientists,” he says. “You learn a lot about what birds are doing, who they are related to and where they’ve been. You’re asking questions and scratching the itch of curiosity in an organized way.”

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Lauren Boyer

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