Those with a calling to their life’s work are lucky. Sometimes we are the lucky ones, to know their accomplishments. After 26 years spent transforming the Cornell Lab of Ornithology into the world’s leader in the study of birds, John Fitzpatrick retired last July as the lab’s director. His long-held belief that birds can save the world has shaped his entire career. “Birds grab our hearts, sing to us, encourage wonder,” he says. “You don’t have to know anything about them to appreciate them.”
As a young man in rural Minnesota, living at the edge of the woods next to a large, serene pond, Fitzpatrick was granted a view of the natural world and the birds within. “I took part in my first Christmas Bird Count at age 6,” laughs the man affectionately known to everyone as Fitz. “The bird life back then was fantastic.”
Young Fitz was in heaven when he was outside where he could explore to his heart’s content. His neighbor was the well-known wildlife painter Francis Lee Jaques, who had retired to the house across the pond and continued to paint. “Mr. Jaques showed me how to envision the structure of the bird and to think about painting them from the inside out,” he recalls.
“One of his last paintings, from a year before he died, was a canvas of sandhill cranes in the foreground with several flying in the background. I watched him work on that painting and noted his juxtaposition of lines, which he emphasized.” The artist’s influence would stay with Fitz long after he left Minnesota. “When I walked into Cornell for my first interview in 1994, I came face to face with that very painting. After I got the job, I put it in a place where I would see it every day.”
Fitz accepted the director’s job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology only after Cornell University and the lab’s board agreed to support his quest to make it a world-class facility. When he arrived in 1995, the original lab’s building was overcrowded and staff was spread out among 13 trailers and outbuildings.
He immediately set to fundraising to build a unified center, attract student and faculty talent to enable top-tier science, and get the public involved like never before. Miyoko Chu, the lab’s communications director, was struck by Fitz’s ability to inspire people, even those he has never met. “We get thank-you letters from people who were motivated to participate in bird counts, take courses, and volunteer,” says Chu. “We have a Young Birders program at Cornell where high school kids come to the lab and Fitz will take them on bird walks and talk with them about biology and career paths. He opens up possibilities for them and shows confidence in what young people can do.”
Chu recalls his leadership style at Cornell as fostering ideas first. “Instead of focusing on the constraints of a new project or idea for the lab, he wanted to hear the idea first, then help articulate it. Fitz would ask, ‘What would we do if there were no obstacles?’”
At Cornell, Fitz saw early on how the digital space could encourage citizen science. He led the creation of eBird, the largest database of bird observations in the world. “This rapidly growing program is an example of how to harness the widely distributed sensors that we call human beings to get data and then organize it through technology,” he says.
The eBird database was born in part from the success of Project Feederwatch, which collected bird observations people mailed in on note cards. The first Great Backyard Bird Count followed, encouraging people to log observations on the lab’s website. So many sightings were logged during one weekend in February that the server crashed. The response proved that people would participate, but would they do so on a large scale? What would the interface look like? These questions led to today’s eBird success; it has amassed 700,000 individual contributors and more than a billion observations.
It takes about 60 people working on eBird daily at the lab, including support staff for users, programmers, database managers, analysts, statisticians, and those who work with lab partners seeking to use the data to pursue bird conservation. “Hopefully, eBird inspires curiosity, observation, and knowledge,” says Fitz. “People want to save what they understand. We want them to open their eyes to the terrific wonders of curiosity. Birds are very good at that.”
Fitz envisioned more than public engagement. The lab is currently investing in visualization to tell the story behind the data. Interactive maps can help landowners understand how their practices affect bird trends on their acreage. In the public sector, the data can influence policy decisions. “If there is one thing the lab stands for, it is the idea that we have an opportunity to make a difference,” says Fitz. “To show how human cultures can grow side by side with intact natural systems. That concept has to be valued.”
That same curiosity about birds blossomed in Fitz during his college years. He dreamed of seeing the family of birds he studied, tiny South American flycatchers, in their natural environment. “At Princeton, I met my graduate school professor, John Terborgh, who invited me to spend the summer of 1974 with four other researchers in a remote, bird-rich outpost in the Peruvian Amazon, near the base of the Andes Mountains,” he recalls. “That entire untouched area was like a candy store to me. There are more species of birds in southeastern Peru than anywhere in the world.” The researchers cut the first trails and stayed in a primitive camp. “By the end of the summer, we had run out of everything but lentils,” Fitz laughs. “It was almost 20 years before I could eat them again.”
On that first trip to Peru, Terborgh gave Fitz some advice. “He told me not to worry about writing a paper now, just go out and be curious,” he recalls. “Science is about measuring things, comparing and contrasting, understanding change.” He returned with colleagues to northern Peru the following year, and the country’s bird life continued to dazzle them. The researchers set up ultra-fine, lightweight netting known as mist nets to safely catch birds flying low through the forest. That first day, Fitz discovered a wren previously unknown to science. He named it the bar-winged wood wren and, remembering what Jacques had taught him, drew the bird expertly.
Fitz’s connection with Florida and the diverse bird life here began during his sophomore year of college. “I was looking for an internship so I didn’t have to mow lawns again all summer,” he explains. He applied to Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida in 1972, during the early stages of a study of Florida scrub-jays. That study grew into one of the most intensive studies of one bird population in the world.
Sixteen years later, Fitz became Archbold’s director, and along with his wife, Molly, whom he met on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, raised their two children at Archbold. Most days, Fitz could be found there standing in the bed of a pickup truck making the distinctive “pish, pish” call to attract the scrub-jays. Through many hundreds of hours of observations, he drew very detailed territory maps. “I know every square meter of that place,” he says.
In 1991, Fitz hired Reed Bowman, now Archbold’s director of avian ecology, and the two remain close. “It was late in my PhD work that Fitz convinced me to come down and help with a few things. That was 30 years ago,” laughs Bowman. “One of the most remarkable things about Fitz is that he has all the characteristics that would make him good at anything, but he happens to have a passion for birds. He will take the time to talk at length with anyone of any age about science and about birds.”
Even after he became director of Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Fitz has returned to Archbold each year during peak breeding season. Chu visited with her son Tilden, who was 11 at the time, and they experienced the scrub habitat through Fitz’s eyes. “He spent the whole morning explaining to my son the importance of fire in scrub habitat to maintain healthy populations of wildlife and hiked with us to find scrub-jays using the territory map,” recalls Chu. “We came across a tortoise and Fitz and Tilden examined
it together. The tortoise was marked and they recorded their observations about it on paper,” she adds. “Tilden was having a ball. Fitz invites everyone to be an explorer, and I saw this play out with my son.” He invited the boy to do an internship when he was old enough, which affected Tilden’s view of the natural world. “He is now at Yale studying environmental policy,” says Chu.
Fitz helped many students achieve their objectives and career goals as scientists, including his own children. “Dylan is a math whiz. He just finished his PhD on big data science at Carnegie Mellon and now works at the Urban Labs in Chicago,” says Fitz. “Sarah received a National Science Foundation grant for her work as an evolutionary geneticist and is leading a project now at Archbold Biological Station.”
Sarah feels lucky to have had a dream childhood, growing up at Archbold, playing at the edges of wetlands and following their father on bird counts. “My dad’s passion and commitment to fostering biodiversity appreciation and conservation definitely rubbed off on my brother and me,” she says. “His love of the natural world, especially birds, is contagious and has certainly shaped the person I am today.”
Back when Molly was pregnant with Sarah, Fitz made his last major expedition to the Pantiacolla mountain range in Peru. He vowed then that he would bring the child she carried back to that very spot, one he called a genuine paradise. They fulfilled the promise in 2016 when Sarah turned 30. “What surprised me was how specific his memories were about various locations and routes and, of course, his ability to recall bird songs and identifications,” she says. “I knew he was good, but that impressed me.”
Expect to see more of Fitz and Molly in Vero Beach in coming years. As newlyweds, the couple often visited Molly’s parents, who moved here in the 1980s, and got to know the area through them. The proximity to Archbold was not lost on Fitz. “Vero Beach is perfectly situated on the coast to still have good proximity to the deep interior of the state, the real Old Florida experience,” he says. “What birders call ‘branch country.’”
Molly and Fitz own a home in Riomar and for many years have spent most of winter and spring here. The couple will continue to be what Fitz calls migratory birds, keeping a watchful eye on the abundant and varied bird life that enriches our area.
Coworkers and friends laugh about Fitz’s retirement in a tribute video posted on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, agreeing that he is unlikely to dwell on a porch swing. All believe he will not stop championing his credo that birds can save the world. “When you look into the eyes of a bird, it is very easy to suddenly recognize a living, conscious being,” says Fitz. “The way birds interact with food, their environment, and each other gives observers a microscope into how nature works,” he adds. “There is nothing that is more beautiful and fulfilling than simply observing nature. We can’t help singing about it.”