Adapted from a career profile by Scott Weidensaul. Read the full article in Living Bird, Spring 2021.
This June, John Fitzpatrick retired from his position as director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology after 26 years. Fitz, as he is commonly known, is a global leader and pioneer in bird conservation and research. During his more than two decades of leadership, Fitz formed the Lab into a world-class organization recognized for its innovative research techniques like bioacoustics, as well as its expertise in public outreach and education. Along the way, Fitz has supported the creation of international conservation projects like the Coastal Solutions Fellows program.
Fitz’s passion for birds started early in life. Born in 1951 in Minnesota, he discovered the joy of birdwatching in kindergarten. He went on to attend Harvard University, where he developed his interest in tropical ornithology and completed an honors thesis on flycatchers. After graduating, he began his graduate studies at Princeton and continued his research on flycatchers in the remote jungles of Peru, where he even discovered several new bird species. He completed his PhD in 1978 and took a job as curator and researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago, traveling back to South America multiple times. Then, Fitz met his wife on a trip to the Galápagos and decided to focus his research on the Florida Scrub Jay at the Archbold Biological Station so he could raise a family in the United States.
In 1995, Fitz was offered a position as director of the Lab of Ornithology, then just a collection of old buildings and a few dozen staff. Growing the Lab’s research positions was Fitz’s first goal when he arrived. By 2000, he had grown his research department to include six faculty leading their own labs. His next goal was creating a headquarters for the Cornell Lab. In 2003, the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity was completed. One of Fitz’s dreams was to bring new evolutionary biology techniques to the Lab, and the new Center made this possible. With new labs and more high-tech equipment, the Lab’s scientists were able to produce much more research than before. In this last year, the Lab published almost 150 peer-reviewed articles!
While he was developing the Lab’s research capacity, Fitz was also working to make the Lab’s expertise available to scientists and bird enthusiasts around the world. Soon after, the eBird project launched an app and website that allowed birders to track their sightings and contribute their data to science. These online ventures were incredibly successful, and today more than 100 million bird observations are added to eBird every year. Fitz also supported the growth of many other citizen science projects, like the Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch, which have empowered people from all walks of life to discover the wildlife around them and make real contributions to conservation.
During his incredible career, Fitz has balanced multiple roles. Besides developing the Lab as its Director, he continued his own individual research on the Florida Scrub Jay (he was in the field every year except 2020) and mentored and supported numerous young scientists. Fitz has also become a global voice for conservation, speaking out against issues like the reversal of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and bringing awareness to the plight faced by endangered birds. In 2018, he wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about the crisis of extinction facing migratory shorebirds, calling it the “No. 1 conservation crisis facing birds in the world today”. His concern about shorebird populations led him to support the launch of the Coastal Solutions Fellows program in 2019.
Through the years at the Lab of Ornithology, Fitz’s motto was “We’re not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them”. Fitz’s approach encouraged his coworkers and mentees to bring their ideas to life, no matter how impossible they might seem. This innovative and optimistic spirit, behind so much of the Lab’s success, will endure as part of his legacy. Fitz leaves the Lab of Ornithology with a bright future as he retires to spend more time on his artwork, travel, and scrub jay research. Undoubtedly, Fitz will remain an inspiration to not only his colleagues, but birders and conservationists around the world.