Macaulay Library’s Best Bird Photos 2024

There are more than 50 million photos in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library archive. Here are some of the best from the past year.

Featuring more than 40 photographers

January 4, 2024
A Crested Caracara in Chile. Photo by Ethan Rising / Macaulay Library.

There are more than 50 million photos in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library archive. Here are some of the best from the past year.

From the Winter 2024 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now. If you like this photo essay, you’ll also enjoy last year’s Best of Macaulay essay.

For our 2024 photo essay we’re celebrating wonderful photos in five themes: the high-speed action of Thrill of the Chase, a look at our avian neighbors with Birds in Built Environments, a sampler platter of food types with Feeding Time, spectacular poses in Birds Never Cease to Amaze, and a peek at some of the world’s rarest birds with Rare Glimpses. In the final section, we say thank you to all the photographers who make the Macaulay Library archive such a uniquely rich resource.

Thrill of the Chase

As a visual catalog of the life histories of more than 10,000 avian species, the Macaulay Library contains dramatic images that provide a rare look into how birds interact with perceived foes—such as an egret jockeying with an elephant seal for space on the beach—and reliable prey, such as a spring cloud of insects pierced by a sallying Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

Hundreds of birds fly at sunset over a dark city.
Purple Martins fill the sky in Brazos, Texas. Photo by Jonathan Taffet / Macaulay Library.

Birds in Built Environments

Macaulay Library images provide spectacular evidence that cities can be full of birdlife—with photos of iconic species nesting, roosting, and migrating from Rome to Kathmandu to the grounds of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photographer Jonathan Taffet captured an image of Purple Martins swarming above the Texas A&M University campus. “It was an amazing sight to behold,” he says, “even more amazing that this was not in some national wildlife refuge or state park, but on a campus traversed by 70,000 students.” 

A iridescent green hummingbird with a super long bill uses it to gather nectar from a flower.
A Sword-billed Hummingbird’s impressive bill reaches nectar in a flower, in Ecuador. Photo by Jeff Hapeman / Macaulay Library.

Feeding Time

Many Macaulay Library photos feature anxious nestlings awaiting food or an adult chowing down, providing scientists with imagery to study bird diets. Photographer Steven Meisel documented the delivery of damselflies to Tree Swallow nestlings at a pollinator garden near St. Paul, Minnesota. “The parents were very busy feeding the two hatchlings,” he says, “about every five minutes.“ 

Rainbow-bearded Thornbill in Colombia by Heiler Uribe / Macaulay Library.

Birds Never Cease to Amaze

Birds sometimes do the weirdest things. When photographers are there to catch these rare moments—like the improbable interaction of a Dunlin standing atop a Willet—they unlock new information about bird species. Sharing these unique photos with the Macaulay Library helps to build a robust archive of little-known bird behaviors. 

A green bird with a green bill, purple patch behind the eye, and black face markings, starts on a forest floor.
A Sumatran Ground-Cuckoo in Indonesia—one of just 17 photos of this species in the Macaulay archive. Photo by JJ Harrison / Macaulay Library.

Rare Glimpses

Some of the most prized photos in the Macaulay Library are images of the world’s most reclusive and cryptic birds. Photo documentation puts a face to the names of these rare and vulnerable species, which helps fuel the cause for their protection and conservation. 

Thank You, Photographers

Photo by photo, bird song by bird song, the Macaulay Library has grown thanks to the gracious contributions of birders around the world sharing their images, sound recordings, and videos. As a result, the Macaulay Library is a global ornithology resource for the world, helping to further research and conservation.

Every year, scientific journals publish hundreds of research papers based on analyses of audio recordings, photos, and videos from the Macaulay Library. For example, scientists in Peru used the Macaulay Library to better understand the impacts of plastic on seabirds by assessing photos of birds entangled or trapped in plastic. Their results were published last year in the journal Environmental Conservation. Contributions from the worldwide community of birders are making a difference and improving our understanding of birds and their environments. None of this would be possible without the generosity and dedication of contributors to the archive.

Below are just some of the more than 40 photographers featured in this article. From everyone at the Macaulay Library and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, thank you for your time and efforts; we can’t wait to see all that we’ll achieve together in 2024.

The Cornell Lab

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