Visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology


After four and a half hours of driving, here we are. © S.G. Hansen

Saw Mill River Audubon went on a trip to upstate New York this past weekend. We visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca for a few hours and spent the remainder of the time at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. I had been to Montezuma before – twice – but never to the Lab.

The Lab was established in 1915 by ornithologist Arthur Allen. Students, scientists, educators, researchers, and citizens scientists collaborate to fulfill the Lab’s mission: “To interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” Perhaps you have heard about their webcams, or their informational websites All About Birds and Birds of North America. They are most known for their ornithology program, but also offer majors in, for example, evolutionary biology, ichthyology, and animal science.

The Lab is located in Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. Early in the 20th century, Allen and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes wanted to save the woods from logging. They purchased 150 acres after receiving a wealthy student’s donation. Allen and Fuertes chose to name the land after the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; it was the first place in the Cayuga Lake region where sapsuckers were spotted breeding. Over time, more and more acres have been added, totaling more than 220 today.

After we arrived and checked in, we lunched by the lake. Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks foraged for food on the gravel shore by the building. I never had such close views of black ducks. They are the second-most common ducks I see, behind mallards. In the distance, black ducks usually look like plain dark blobs. Here, I could make out the finer details of their plumage. Certain ducks such as this may not look as grandly vivid as the Wood Duck or Green-winged Teal, but they win a place in the subtle beauty contest.


American Black Duck from inside the building’s glass wall blind. © S.G. Hansen

The only exceptional ducks were the two female Hooded Mergansers. They were shy and very aware of us. Once we reached our lunching spot, they swam to the far side of the lake and hid themselves.

We had some time to kill before our tour and walked on a trail. By this time, day passed noon. The weather was sunny but unusually warm for this time of year – the temperature climbed past sixty degrees. We had to shed multiple layers. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of activity during our walk.We saw and heard a few typical winter birds: goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, a couple downy woodpeckers, blue jays, white-throated sparrows and a white-breasted nuthatch. There wasn’t much else to see on the lake.

A Lab student studying ichthyology led our behind-the-scenes tour initially. She first showed us and talked about the large mural in the lobby and Fuertes’ paintings. We then ventured behind a closed door to a hallway of classrooms. After we spent some time in a classroom, Charles Dardia – the Collections Manager of the Museum of Vertebrates – suddenly appeared and took over as our guide. He led us into another classroom where students work on stuffing birds and preserving wings. One student was just beginning to disembowel a young robin, carefully starting to make a small incision in the skin.

My birdwatching hobby kicked off while I studied for graduate school. Ever since, I kept thinking how the birding bug bit me too late, that I could have gone to school for ornithology instead of writing, and that I think I would be capable of handling stuffed birds.

Then I went on this tour. As I watched the student progress with her incision, I saw the skin’s pink underside and started feeling nauseated. First off, I was dressed far too warmly and only brought wool socks with me. I tend to feel sick in the stomach even after removing layers. Then the sawdust and mothball aromas started to get to me. I managed to stick around long enough to see another student bring out a pair of Turkey Wings he had worked on, but I had to leave the classroom eventually.


Newly stuffed and drying out. © S.G. Hansen

Thankfully, the next room we went in was refrigerated. The Lab keeps its 190,000 jars of preserved fish here. The Lab preserves the fish and loans them to scientists and other schools. One can study DNA and the evolution of tooth development, for instance.


No pickled herring here. © S.G. Hansen

Then we went to a large room – the most exciting part of the tour for any birdwatcher. Yes, this is where they have the drawers and drawers and drawers of stuffed birds from around the world, sorted by taxonomy. I braced myself for the beautiful dead.

Mr. Dardia opened the drawer of Wandering Albatrosses and the most hideous odor I had ever smelled waffed out.


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” © S.G. Hansen

I gagged. Instant nausea. I stayed in the back of the group and kept a hand over my mouth and nose almost the entire time. Unfortunately, I missed what Mr. Dardia talked about. My mind was completely occupied by the odor and struggled to take pictures.

We got the best chance we would ever have to see these three extinct species:


Though I was relieved to finally exit the room, I was convinced the odor stuck to my clothes. Next, we took a look at Ralph the reticulated python, whose skeleton was mounted on the hallway wall. The skeleton’s length reached 19 feet, but, alive, Ralph was 26 feet long. Ralph could have eaten children.

Mr. Dardia had to take off, so the Lab student resumed her position as guide. She talked a bit about the Elephant Listening Project, in which acoustic biologists study the infrasounds of elephant communication. The scientists know each elephant so well that they could tell whose footsteps are whose.

Our tour ended shortly. After a break, we headed north to Auburn.


Standing beside Todd McGrain’s bronze Passenger Pigeon statue. © S.G. Hansen


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