A Visit for the Birds: Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods

One day in the spring of 1909, an ornithologist by the name of Arthur Allen and a highly acclaimed bird artist, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, were exploring the bird life in a forest on the outskirts of Ithaca, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. Their investigations led them to the active nest of a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers—the first sapsucker nest to be found in the area. This find so delighted them that they christened the place “Sapsucker Woods.” And so marked the beginning of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s fascinating and unique history that has established its reputation as an internationally known center for the study and appreciation of birds.

To the uninitiated, Lab headquarters, in Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, may seem like a tranquil place where visitors can come for relaxation and contemplation. And it is. Local birders know Sapsucker Woods as one of the area’s premier birding hotspots during spring and fall migration, with more than 230 bird species having been recorded here.  Situated among 220 acres of diverse habitats that provide nesting, roosting, and feeding areas for a variety of birds, the Lab is a perfect destination for the lone visitor, or the host with family or friends to entertain. More than four miles of hiking trails wind through deciduous forests, past woodland swamps and stands of evergreens, making for an easy, wildflower-graced walk in the spring and summer. In autumn, the foliage paints a spectacular backdrop, and in winter, the trails are perfect for cross-country skiing.

Inside the observatory, huge glass walls overlook a 10-acre pond kept open for waterfowl all year. Telescopes invite guests to take a closer look at the delicate plumage of the birds on and around the water. One of the glass panels sets the specially designed bird-feeding garden on display, affording visitors close-up views of chickadees and jays,  juncos and cardinals, woodpeckers and sparrows, all busily feeding at the seed-and-suet smorgasbord. Outdoor microphones bring the sounds of nature inside. Corridors throughout the Lab are graced by the largest collection of original artwork by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

The respite the observatory and sanctuary trails offer is just the feather in the cap of what goes on at the Lab. Thanks in part to the early vision and ensuing work of Arthur Allen and others who share a fascination with birds, the Lab has become a world leader in ornithology. Central to this success is its mission as an institution “interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” These are not merely words hanging on office walls. Each of the elements—research, education, and citizen science—are lived and breathed not only at the Lab, but all over North America and beyond.

Lab staff and citizen-science project participants are the embodiment of the world’s largest research team. Tens of thousands of individuals, families, classes, and youth groups are involved. The program includes Project FeederWatch, a survey of birds that visit feeders throughout the winter, and The Birdhouse Network, which invites participants to monitor the happenings in and around their birdhouses during the breeding season. Project PigeonWatch, an inner-city youth initiative, asks kids to help researchers answer the question, “Why do pigeons come in so many different colors?” Another youth-oriented project, Classroom FeederWatch, uses Project FeederWatch protocol to engage school children in hands-on scientific research and includes a full curriculum. Other Lab projects, such as Birds in Forested Landscapes and the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project, are conservation-oriented and give volunteers the chance to “get out in the field” to gather data about species that are showing population declines.

Observations for each study are combined by the Lab’s Bird Population Studies (BPS) staff, who then look for changes in abundance and distribution, and determine possible reasons for any detectable trends. The results are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, making the efforts of these citizen-scientists available to researchers-at-large and anyone else interested in finding out what’s going on with birds and their environments. Lab members can read about these findings in Birdscope, the publication of Lab news.

A behind-the-scenes look at the Lab wouldn’t necessarily reveal the scope of this massive team effort. What you see when you stop in at the BPS department are men and women at computers, running analytical programs, generating maps, and discussing what the data show—the data collection itself may have taken place at your mother’s house, or at your neighborhood school. Unless you’re someone who appreciates the painstaking step that number-crunching plays in the scientific process, you would probably sooner enjoy lounging on one of the benches overlooking the sanctuary pond with a pair of binoculars.

Of course, there’s much to be said for the feeling of simply knowing you’re inside the walls of an institution where major scientific discoveries have been made. For example, Lab researchers recently documented that a naturally-occurring disease can regulate a wildlife population. The findings, from a study of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in House Finches and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could give scientists insight into the dynamics of other host/disease systems as well, such as an epidemic affecting fish in the Chesapeake Bay, or possibly even AIDS. Lab work has also shown that some species of birds errupt in regions beyond their typical year-round range according to a cycle that is likely related to food availability.

Lab findings have been written up and published as guidelines for how to manage certain types of land according to the needs of the birds who use that particular habitat, including declining species. Nowhere else can you ponder such achievements while admiring the brush strokes in Fuertes’ Whip-poor-will painting.

If you call in advance, or if you get lucky, you may be able to arrange a tour of the Lab’s renowned Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (MLNS), home to the world’s largest collection of bird and mammal sounds. More than 140,000 recordings comprise the MLNS archive, making it the premier resource of its kind for research, conservation, education, and recreational use. MLNS staff frequently collaborate with scientists from around the world to produce tapes or CDs that will assist in research. They also work with other distinguished institutions, such as Conservation International and the Field Museum of Chicago, to provide materials to researchers in third-world countries who are working to demonstrate the avian diversity of tropical forests and other threatened areas to better ensure their protection.

MLNS recordings are highly regarded for their quality and frequently are used by National Geographic, National Public Radio, PBS, and other media outlets. Their sounds are also used in popular Hollywood movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, A River Runs Through It, and Dead Poets Society. Perhaps you own an MLNS-produced audio guide? These are produced to help professionals and non-professionals alike boost their skills in vocal identification. MLNS titles include Bird Songs of Florida, Costa Rican Bird Songs Sampler, Frog and Toad Calls of the Pacific States, and Sounds of Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, to name but a few.

As you walk through the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds hallway, you’ll see framed album jackets and awards adorning the walls. One of these is from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for MLNS’ contribution to Paul Winter’s Grammy-winning recording, “Prayer for the Wild Things.” Inside the archive itself, row upon row of recordings fill the shelves, and to think of what some of the tapes contain is enough to send chills up your spine: the nasal yanks and drummings of the last Ivory-billed Woodpecker known in United States, and the world’s last Kauai Oo calling out to a mate that no longer exists, for he is the last of his kind. There’s the rattle of rattlesnakes, trumpeting of elephants, grumbles and growls of tigers and lions, howls of wolves, and serenades of Humpback Whales. There are the curious clicks and pops of insects and amphibians, and some of the strangest, most magnificent bird songs you’ll ever hear—the scream of the Screaming Piha, the Common Potoo’s sorrowful wail, the tireless whistle of the Musician Wren. Spend a little time inside the Lab and you’re apt to hear any of these sounds filtering out of just about any office at any time.

Making sense of these sounds is the expertise of the Lab’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP). A peek into the department is likely to yield a series of computer screens bearing sonograms and other tools staff scientists use in their analysis. Many of these tools are developed by BRP staff themselves. They are experts on animal communications, and when they can’t find what they need to help them do their work, their staff engineers design something that will do the job. BRP researchers are widely known for their work on elephants and whales, and their efforts have played a crucial role in the conservation of these great creatures.

Visitors with a vehicle and a little time on their hands may want to arrange a tour of the Lab’s Systematics and Collections facility, located a short hop from Sapsucker Woods. Researchers the world over use this collection of bird specimens, taking measurements and making comparisons among species and individual birds for scientific and educational research. For many Lab visitors, this may provide the only opportunity to see first-hand the dazzling plumage of tanagers and mannikins from the Amazon rainforest, as well as the gigantic bill of hornbills from Africa. The collection offers a glimpse into the diversity of bird life found throughout the earth.

All of this is a far cry from the Lab’s origins, even if the potential was there from the start. The Lab’s history was, to say the least, precarious. In 1915, Cornell University appointed Arthur Allen as the country’s first professor of ornithology. However, “Doc” Allen, as he came to be known, was officially part of the entomology department. To ensure Doc Allen would have space, the chair of the department declared the space the “Lab of Ornithology.” In the years that followed, the Lab moved from building to building throughout the Cornell campus.

None of this shuffling deterred Doc Allen’s enthusiasm for his work, and the Lab quickly became known for its innovative bird research. The first bird song recordings—the backbone of today’s Macaulay Library of Sounds—were made here, and even back then, Doc Allen made a special point to engage the public in the study of birds. Groups of more than 100 bird and nature enthusiasts regularly joined him on his beloved Saturday morning bird walks. All of that evolved into what is now called “citizen science.”

As for Lab headquarters itself, the current facility exists thanks to the generosity of a local businessman. In 1953, Lyman K. Stuart provided funds to purchase a building site and construct a new facility just for the Lab. The location was an easy choice: Sapsucker Woods. At the time, a large part of Doc Allen’s beloved woods had been cleared for agriculture. Nonetheless, Allen had the building built here, along with a 10-acre pond created for waterfowl and other wildlife, and allowed the area to reforest. The Lab’s Lyman K. Stuart Observatory was named in honor of the generosity of the man who made the building possible.

Now the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is embarking on an exciting new chapter of its history. With more than 100 employees housed in a building designed for about 50, the Lab has had to piece together office and research space, even resorting to hauling in trailers to house the overflow. In June 2001, however, construction began to create a world-class facility.

The new Lab will be five times the size of the old – some 84,000 square feet – to allow for current needs and future growth. The design will accommodate easier integration of Lab programs and will provide staff scientists with dedicated research space. Space will be allotted for students as well. Indigenous plants will grace the paths to the building, and additional wetlands will be created, underscoring the Lab’s dedication to the conservation of natural ecosystems.

The Visitors Center will continue to feature floor-to-ceiling views of the pond. Bird-feeding gardens will also be part of the new observatory. However, the new Visitors Center will provide more opportunities for interactive learning. Central to this will be a Sight and Sound Room featuring bird images from the Lab’s extensive Visual Services collection and recordings provided by the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.

The heart of the new Lab will be the magnificent Fuertes Room. To make room for more offices, the Fuertes Room in the current facility had to be dismantled in early 2001, to the regret of Lab staffers and visitors, many of whom referred to room as the “Sistine Chapel of Birding.” It’s in this room that the popular Monday Night Seminars took place, with some of the best ornithologists coming to the Lab to share with the Ithaca community findings from their research and other bird-related topics. They spoke and showed slides, surrounded by the room’s elegant woodwork, library cases, and vast panels of splendid Fuertes artwork. The Fuertes Room will be recreated in the new building — at twice the size. One of the room’s double-height walls will serve as a gallery displaying the work of Fuertes and other bird artists.

From the outside, visitors will see an architectural landmark bordered by trees and bird gardens. Made of cedar and glass exterior, its appearance will complement the woods. Visitors will be able to bird-watch and enjoy their surroundings from a two-story observation tower offering panoramic views of the pond and sanctuary. The distinctive experience will begin as soon as you arrive: a circular drive and walkway of crushed rock will lead to the building itself. And of course, visitors will be welcome at the Lab and the trails will continue to be open year-round.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the most accomplished bird artists of all time, has a special connection with the Sapsucker Woods. Fuertes grew up in Ithaca. His father was a professor at Cornell University when Louis was born. Louis himself started attending Cornell as a freshman in 1893. Here he was introduced to the foremost ornithologist in North America at the time, Elliott Coues. Through Coues, Fuertes obtained commission work and eventually  illustrated a beginning bird book for children entitled Citizen Bird.
A prolific painter and illustrator, he created commissioned paintings, and his illustrations appeared in magazine articles and books. Fuertes presented an annual series of lectures at Cornell University and accompanied biological expeditions as an official artist. His travels carried him across North America, Central and South America, Europe and Africa. The last journey he took was to Abyssinia in 1927.
After returning home and showing his sketches in New York City, he was killed when his car collided with a train at a railroad crossing. He was 53. Arthur A. Allen, the co-founder of the Lab at Sapsucker Woods, stated, “During my fifty years at Cornell I have at no other time nor in any other classroom seen such a spontaneous response from students and from colleagues as that which followed Louis Fuertes’s lectures. His early death robbed Cornell of one of the greatest teachers it has ever known, as well as the greatest bird artist.”
Fuertes’ work will be appearing once again at the Sapsucker Woods in the remodeled lab. The Fuertes Room will be recreated as it originally was seen in an ornate private study in New Haven, Connecticut. Twenty-four fabulous oil paintings will once again adorn the walls of the room. Many paintings and sketches can still be seen hanging on walls throughout the lab at the Sapsucker Woods.

by Allison Childs Wells, photographs by Tim Gallagher
Allison Wells is the Communications and Outreach Director at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.


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