John W. Fitzpatrick accepts the James Madison Medal from Louise Sams, Chair of the Princeton University Board of Trustees.

Around Cornell

News directly from Cornell's colleges and centers

Fitzpatrick lauded for career accomplishments

Nearly a half-century of groundbreaking work has brought many accolades to Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director emeritus, John W. Fitzpatrick. The most recent one comes from Princeton University where Fitzpatrick earned his doctorate in biology in 1978. During a February 24 Alumni Day ceremony, “Fitz” received the James Madison Medal in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to ornithology.

“Receiving this prestigious award from my graduate school alma mater was an extraordinary honor,” said Fitzpatrick, “especially as it was the first one in the 50-year history of the Madison Medal to go to an ecologist or evolutionary biologist. In accepting this award, I humbly tip my hat to the dozens of my colleagues at the Cornell Lab who together have made the Lab a global powerhouse in research, public engagement, citizen science, and biodiversity conservation.”

Fitzpatrick also acknowledged the Princeton professors and mentors who guided his steps during the early days of his career. That career included

Bar-winged wood-wren painted by John W. Fitzpatrick in 1976, after discovering this species while a graduate student at Princeton

the discovery of new bird species, field work on South American flycatchers, and decades-long research (still ongoing) into the highly endangered Florida Scrub-Jay—at one point even standing in front of a bulldozer to block development in scrub-jay habitat. Fitzpatrick remained just as passionate while holding top positions at the Field Museum of Chicago, The Archbold Biological Field Station in Florida, and during 26 years as executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and professor in Cornell’s department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In rare periods of down-time, he kept honing his skills as an accomplished watercolor artist, works that often reflect his devotion to birds.

In accepting Princeton’s top award for graduate school alumni, Fitzpatrick underscored the power of birds in a talk called "Wild Birds Are Canaries, and Our Planet is the Coal Mine." He touched on a number of paradigm-shifting developments that came during his tenure at the Lab of Ornithology, particularly the growth of participatory science, such as the globe-spanning eBird program, the AI-powered Merlin Bird ID app, and the use of weather radar to reveal some of the secrets of bird migration. He credits some of the “brilliant” people behind the technological wizardry designed to make bird conservation more precise and effective. Fitz closed his talk with the admonition "we cannot give up," we have to keep on striving to find our place in the overall grandeur of nature. He received extended applause and a standing ovation. Watch the presentation.

Media Contact

Media Relations Office