Ian Owens

Professor Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology


I am an ornithologist interested in the ecology, evolution and conservation of birds, and using the power of birds to engage the public with big questions in science and global sustainability.

Since 2021 I have been Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a pioneering scientific institute that brings together major programs in technology, research, education, communications and conservation for birds at a global scale. As well as being a research and training powerhouse, the Cornell Lab has a high public profile as the home of a series of citizen science projects, apps and websites such as eBird, Merlin, All About Birds, Bird Cams, Celebrate Urban Birds, Birds of the World and the Macaulay Library of sound recordings. These projects are powered by hundreds of thousands of birders and members of the public from around the world that together have contributed over 1 billion observations, representing one of the world’s largest sources of information on the health of nature.

Prior to joining the Cornell, I worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where I was Deputy Director and had responsibilities spanning collections, research, exhibitions, education and operations. Before being at the Smithsonian, I held posts in the UK and Australia as Director of Science at the Natural History Museum in London, Professor in Evolutionary Ecology at Imperial College London, Chair of Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences, Deputy Director of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Silwood Park, and Assistant Professor in Ecology at the University of Queensland.

Research Focus

The central question of our research is, what are the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that drive biological diversification? We tackle this question at both macro- and microevolutionary scales using a combination of field experiments, genetic analyses and phylogenetic and spatial analyses. Almost all of my work is based on birds because of the unrivalled depth of information on the ecology, behavior, systematics and geographical distribution of bird species, and the ability to manipulate genetic pedigrees, observe behavior and monitor individual reproduction and mortality in free-living bird populations.

Our research program focuses on three inter-twining themes: general rules in global biogeography and macroecology and the implications for large-scale conservation planning; evolutionary divergence in life histories, mating systems and extinction risk across bird lineages; and the genetic basis of evolution wild populations. All of these themes are based on bringing together multi-disciplinary research teams, collating big new data sets, and developing novel analytical techniques.


  • Bennett, PM & Owens, IPF (2002) Evolutionary Ecology of Birds: Life Histories, Mating Systems and Extinction. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Peck H, Pringle H, Marshall H, Owens IPF & Lord A (2014) Experimental evidence of impacts of an invasive parakeet on foraging behaviour of native birds. Behavioral Ecology 25, 582-590.
  • Bell S, Owens IPF & Lord A (2014) Quality of breeding territory mediates the relationship between paternal quality and sex ratio bias in a free-living bird population. Behavioral Ecology 25, 352-358.
  • Jenkins T, Thomas GH, Hellgren O & Owens IPF. (2012) Migratory behavior of birds affects their coevolutionary relationship with blood parasites. Evolution 66, 740-751.
  • Pigot AL, Owens IPF & Orme CDL. (2012) Speciation and extinction drive the appearance of directional range size evolution in phylogenies and the fossil record the evolution of geographic ranges in birds and mammals. PLoS Biology 10, 1371.
  • Olson VA, Davies RG, Orme CDL, Thomas GH, Meiri S, Blackburn TM, Gaston KJ, Owens IPF, Bennett PM (2009) Global biogeography and ecology of body size in birds. Ecology Letters 12, 249-259.
  • Clegg SM, Fretiu FD, Kikkawa J, Tavecchia G, Owens IPF (2008) 4000 years of phenotypic chance in an island bird: heterogeneity of selection over three microevolutionary timescales. Evolution 62, 2393- 2410.
  • Grenyer, R., Orme, C.D.L., Jackson, S.F., Thomas, G.H., Davies, R.G., Davies, T.J., Jones, K.E., Olson, V.A., Ridgely, R.S., Rasmussen, P.C., Ding, T-S., Bennett, P.M., Blackburn, T.M., Gaston, K.J., Gittleman, J.L. and Owens, I.P.F. (2006) The global distribution and conservation of rare and threatened vertebrates. Nature 444, 93-96.
  • Orme CDL, Davies RG, Olson VA, Thomas GH, Ding TZ, Rasmussen PC, Ridgely RS, Stattersfield AJ, Bennett PM, Owens IPF, Blackburn TM, Gaston KJ (2006) Global Patterns of Geographic Range Size in Birds. PLoS Biol 4(7): e208
  • Hadfield JD, Burgess MD, Lord A, Phillimore AB, Clegg SM, Owens IPF (2006) Direct versus indirect sexual selection: genetic basis of colour, size and recruitment in a wild bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273, 1347-1353.
  • Phillimore AB, Owens IPF (2006) Are subspecies useful in evolutionary and conservation biology? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273, 1049-1053
  • Orme C.D.L., Davies R.G., Burgess M., Eigenbrod F., Pickup N., Olson V.A., Webster A.J., Ding T-.S., Rasmussen P.C., Ridgely R.S., Stattersfield A.J., Bennett P.M., Blackburn T.M.,. Gaston K.J., Owens, I.P.F. (2005) Global hotspots of species richness are not congruent with endemism or threat. Nature 436 (7053): 1016-1019.
  • Hausmann, F., Marshall, N.J. & Owens, I.P.F. (2003) “UV signals in birds are special”. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 270, 61-67.
  • Clegg, S.M, Degnan, S.M., Kikkawa, J., Moritz, C., Estoup, A. & Owens, I.P.F. (2002)“Genetic consequences of sequential founder events in a natural system”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 99, 8127-8132.
  • Griffith, S.C., Owens, I.P.F. & Thruman, K. A. (2002) “Extra-pair paternity in birds: a review of interspecific variation and adaptive function”. Molecular Ecology 11, 2195-2122.
  • Owens, I.P.F. and Bennett, P.M. (2000) “Ecological basis of extinction risk in birds: habitat loss versus human persecution and introduced predators”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 97, 12144-12148.
  • Griffith, S., Owens, I.P.F., Burke, T. “Non-genetic inheritance of a sexually selected trait”. Nature 400 (1999), 358-360.
  • Arnold, K.E. & Owens, I.P.F. (1998) “Cooperative breeding in birds: a comparative test of the life history hypothesis”. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 265, 739-745.
  • Olson, V. & Owens, I.P.F. (1998) “Costly sexual signals: are carotenoids rare, risky or required?” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 13, 510-514.
  • Bennett, P.M. & Owens, I.P.F. (1997) “Variation among birds in vulnerability to extinction: chance or evolutionary predisposition?” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 264, 401-
  • Owens, I.P.F. & Short, R.V. (1995) “Hormonal control of sexual dimorphism in birds: implications for new theories in sexual selection”. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 10, 44-47.