October 25, 2001

Expansion Plan for Bird Lab Underway

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After a one-and-a-half year fundraising campaign, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has acquired the $32 million nest egg it needs to construct its new facility at Sapsucker Woods.

The Lab, constructed in 1956, will metamorphose into an 84,000 square-foot research lab and visitor’s center by the spring of 2003.

An additional $1.7 million grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide extra funds for multi-media exhibits in the Visitor’s Center, focusing on the theme “Understanding Birds.”

The new building will be five times the size of the current facility, and will enable the Lab to further its mission — “to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds,” said Prof. John Fitzpatrick, L.A. Fuertes director of the Lab. The current Lab will be demolished after the new one opens next door.

Constructed in 1956 for 20 to 30 staff members and graduate students, the old structure cannot accommodate the Lab of Ornithology’s 100 employees. Since the mid-1980s, four trailers have been added to the 220-acre site in the Sapsucker Woods to provide additional office space.

“We have people literally sitting on top of each other,” Fitzpatrick said. The new Lab will include a DNA-sequencing lab, a 35-student teaching lab, and classroom and research spaces.

The Lab, established in 1915, boasts a legacy as the site of the first bird song recordings. It also has revolutionized public involvement in the study of birds. Today, its “citizen scientist” programs involve birdwatchers throughout North America.

Citizen science “is a program that involves bird enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels in the process of collecting data, for the purpose of understanding birds and protecting their habitat,” according to Allison Wells, communications and outreach director for the Lab. Participants in Project FeederWatch, for example, report on the number and species of birds they observe at their backyard feeders.

The Visitor’s Center will provide opportunities for bird enthusiasts to broaden their knowledge of birds through interactive technologies.

Fitzpatrick explained how a theater there will tell visitors the story of the lab through a 15-minute, multimedia, three-dimensional experience. “With these multimedia, listening, [and other] interior exhibits, it will be a lot more fun place to visit, and a lot more meaningful,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Sight and Sound Room will allow visitors to select videos of birds and song recordings from the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, the world’s largest library of its kind.

“It’ll [the room] teach you how to think like a scientist,” said Wells, who co-authored the NSF grant with Fitzpatrick and Education Director Richard Bonney.

The teak-paneled Fuertes Room, named for its wildlife paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, is a favorite destination in the current building. It will be replicated at twice its original size in the new building.

The second floor will provide ample viewing and exhibit space, including an observation tower and a library. “Spotting scopes” will enable visitors to observe the birds, as they listen to piped-in sounds from outside.

An expansive 84-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling glass wall will permit visitors to view waterfowl swimming in the pond just outside.

“That in itself is an exhibit. It puts a great big eye on the world,” Wells said, adding, “The Visitor’s Center is our pathway to the general public, school groups, citizens and our members who come from all over the world.”

The Lab has more than 26,000 members, and currently hosts several thousand visitors each year. With the building expansion and technology-oriented Visitor’s Center, Fitzpatrick estimates the number of visitors per year will rise to 10,000 or 20,000 .

The current building will remain open throughout the construction of the new facility. “I really want to see it finished — to see the pond and everything back to normal,” said Vanessa McCaffery ’04, who works at the lab. She is concerned about the construction’s disturbance to the wildlife.

Since the new building will be constructed on a small amount of wetlands, “we’ve decided to do a pretty ambitious wet-lands restoration project” to the north and east of the building, Fitzpatrick explained.

He looks forward to final result.

“This is really going to be a phenomenal place for members of the Cornell community from every age to enjoy,” Fitzpatrick said.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder