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  • AOU and COS agree to pursue merger

    Chris Merkord
    • Leaders of the AOU and COS formally approved pursuit of a merger of the two organizations at their annual meeting in Norman, Oklahoma. Both societies will be seeking input from their members as they take the necessary steps in this pursuit.



      UPDATE: 22 Dec 2015: Compilation of responses from members.


      UPDATE: 22 Sept 2015: AOU and COS leadership respond to inquiries from past COS presidents. Posted in the comments, below, with permission from the authors.



      UPDATE 14 Oct 2015: Society leadership reaches out to membership. See request for input below, under main article.

    Leaders of the AOU and COS met together at the annual meeting in Norman, Oklahoma to review the progress and success of our partnerships: the joint publication of our journals, joint communications and website (American Ornithology.org), and our joint annual conference. During the leadership meeting, a motion was made for the two societies to pursue a merger. Both societies formally approved moving ahead with this pursuit in the coming year. During the Oklahoma conference, this action was announced at the AOU Fellows meeting and the COS business meeting. Both societies will be seeking input from their members, multiple times, as they take the necessary steps in this pursuit. The goal is for the societies to reach consensus on the advisability of merging to best serve our membership, our missions, and ornithology as a profession. Any questions at this early stage should be directed to SCOTT LANYON, President, AOU (lanyo001@umn.edu) and/or MARTIN RAPHAEL, President, COS (mraphael@fs.fed.us).



    Oct 14 request for input:



    AOU and COS Members,


    The AOU Council and the COS Board met together in July at our annual meeting in Norman, Oklahoma to review the progress and success of our partnerships: the joint publication of our journals, joint communications and website (www.americanornithology.org ), our joint Science Arbitration initiative, and our joint meetings. During this meeting, one board member posed the question, “shouldn’t we merge?” The members of each governing board of COS and AOU discussed this proposal at great length and the many potential benefits with great enthusiasm. The Council and Board jointly and unanimously approved moving ahead to study the possibility of a merger. This development was announced and discussed at the AOU Fellows meeting and the COS business meeting in Oklahoma.


    Over the coming months, COS and AOU members will receive communications soliciting your input. Initially, leadership wants to hear both what excites you and what concerns you about the idea of merging the two organizations. Once we’ve collected your feedback, leadership will work to resolve identified concerns. We will then communicate our proposed solutions to these concerns and solicit member reactions. By late fall we hope to finish gathering input and reactions, and to finalize a recommendation to AOU Council and COS Board - either to merge (and if so what a merger would entail) or to remain separate.


    If the governing boards of the two societies agree on a solid proposal for merger, the final step will be a vote by membership. The Cooper Ornithological Society bylaws and the State of California, where COS is incorporated, call for a vote by the COS membership. The AOU bylaws require that the AOU Fellows vote on an issue of this magnitude. Although the AOU bylaws do not require a vote of the general membership, Council would nevertheless like to conduct such a vote, to inform the voting of the AOU Fellows.


    Our goal is to conduct the vote this winter so that we can proceed quickly – either to merge, or to work independently but continuing our joint ventures in meetings, publications, website, and science arbitration.


    To jumpstart the discussion, here are some of the suggested reasons why a merger might be in the best interest of the membership of both organizations:

    1. Lower Dues for Individuals
      Members of both organizations would pay one membership fee, not two, to the merged organization.
    2. Increased resources to support members at all stages of their careers. By combining programs and leadership efforts, a single organization would be in a better position to offer quality mentoring and development activities for students, early career professionals, teachers, mid-career professionals and retirees at annual meetings, more research and travel grants, recognition awards, editorial support for Latin American authors and online resources for teaching, research and outreach. All members would have access to The Auk: Ornithological Advances, The Condor: Ornithological Applications and The Birds of North America. In a merged organization, fewer resources would be applied to administrative and operating expenses by combining functions, leaving more resources to be applied to ornithology (Note that finances of a merged organization are being evaluated by a subcommittee at this time).
    3. Greater agility in publishing. A primary function of our societies is to produce journals that provide high quality science to aid authors, scientists, agencies, and the public. Journal publishing is changing rapidly and evolution of the digital platforms, rapid online availability, open access, archive access, print-on-demand, etc, are needed to continue to enhance the visibility, impact and usability of the journals, and these possibilities will be strongly facilitated by the increased resources of a merged society. In a merged organization, strategic decisions would be more streamlined than the current situation with two societies.
    4. Increased likelihood of success in fundraising. The act of merging the two societies would be a significant statement to potential funders of our commitment to and vision for the future of ornithology.

    Since we met in Oklahoma, a small team of AOU representatives (Steve Beissinger, Scott Lanyon and Melinda Pruett Jones) and COS representatives (Martin Raphael, Kim Sullivan, Tom Martin, and Blair Wolf ) has been discussing the merger concept and a preliminary set of issues raised by leadership and members of AOU and COS. Those issues and their tentative resolution are described in the following table.





    Now is a good time for us to receive your input. Are we addressing your concerns in the issues and resolutions identified above? What excites you and what concerns you about the prospect of a merger? Just as importantly, what are the great things about each society that you would want leadership to be sure to preserve in a merged organization? We ask that you respond to the President of the AOU and/or the President of COS (addresses are below) by email, a phone call, or letter by Oct. 19, 2015.

    We expect this to be the first of several opportunities for the memberships of both societies to participate in the process underway. Our next steps include analysis of the financial impact of a possible merger, and continued discussions by representatives of both societies to resolve the remaining issues identified in the table above and others that may arise. We expect to communicate our findings again to membership by late-November.

    Sincerely, Lanyon-Signature.pngraphael-signature.png

    Scott M. Lanyon

    President, American Ornithologists' Union

    University of Minnesota

    1987 Upper Buford Circle

    St. Paul, MN 55108



    Martin G. Raphael

    President, Cooper Ornithological Society

    3625 93rd Ave SW

    Olympia, WA 98512



    For questions or comments about your OSNA society membership, please contact business@osnabirds.org.


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    Questions from past COS presidents C. J. Ralph, Russell P. Balda, J. Michael Scott, Charles van Riper, and  John M. Marzluff to the current COS board with responses from current COS president Marty Raphael interspersed:


    September 15, 2015


    Dear John:

    Thank you and your fellow letter writers for your thoughtful comments about our merger discussions with the AOU.  I have inserted some comments in your points below, just to give you some initial thoughts and reactions.


    1.     We suggest you disclose existing COS finances to the membership with a realistic target of what additional funds are needed to sustain the society and its mission to publish The Condor.  We realize that financial concerns are not the only reason for considering the merger, but as an alternative to merger, you might suggest other means to attain this target, such as increased dues or a fund-raising drive.  These alternative funding options could be appraised as to their likely success in improving the financial stability of the COS.



    (Response): You are correct that financial concerns are not the only reason for considering a merger.  We have many other reasons and will soon be sending out a note to all members detailing what we feel are the most important of these reasons.  But to help members understand current COS finances, it would be good to post the latest 990 (tax filing form), financial review, budget and Treasurer’s reports on the COS portion of our website.  Our 990 is available to the public on the website of the California Registry of Charitable Trusts and is not a secrets.  I will work with Barb Kus, our treasurer, to make this happen.


    We will certainly want to think about alternative funding options and their likelihood of success.  As you can recall during your time on the COS board, setting dues is tricky business and it can be hard to find the right balance.  If dues are set too high, we risk losing members and end up with a net loss.  We can certainly pursue ideas for increased fund raising, and I would welcome any ideas you and your group have to conduct an effective fund raising campaign. 


    2.     As an alternative to merging into a larger society with global focus, we suggest you pose to the membership the alternative of forming a smaller society with a clear focus on conservation of western American or western hemisphere avifaunas.


                         (Response) This is an excellent topic for discussion.  If a merger were to take                            place, my guess is that we would strive to maintain a focus on the avifauna of                          western North America.  We have not worked out how to do this, but that will                          certainly be part of the discussions as we move forward.  Some options we                              have started thinking about include holding conservation focused meetings in                          the west when the annual meeting is held in the east or earmarking part of the                          COS investment account to fund an annual symposium or workshop focused on                      avian conservation in western North America.   We want to think about whether                        this would be better accomplished by merging or staying as a separate society. 




    3.     As an alternative to jointly publishing The Condor with The Auk, we suggest you conduct a financial assessment of the costs of publishing The Condor in open access format funded solely by COS.


    (Response): We know the financial costs of publishing The Condor.  We can consider posting a copy of the COPO budget on the COS website.  We currently publish 50% (the maximum allowed by BioOne) of our articles open access.  If we were to go completely open access we would lose BioOne income (after 2 years) and likely lose institutional subscriptions.  We know the amount of income we derive from BioOne and institutional subscriptions.  I think many people are unaware of the costs of electronic submission, composition, tagging, hosting, copy editing and having staff to ensure the time to publication is not bogged down by delays.   Currently the COS does not have the financial resources to publish The Condor as an open access journal without very large author fees. 


    Part of the process for discussing a merger will be the formation of a financial committee to thoroughly evaluate the implications of a merger on income and expenses.  I am hopeful we can compare results of that committee’s work with an assessment of those revenues and expenses if we were to publish by COS alone.


    4.     We ask that you fully consider costs that might accrue to North American Ornithology if the two largest societies now in existence merge into a single one.  These include financial risks due to a less diverse investment and expenditure strategy. However, there are also substantial social costs to members that should be articulated and presented in an unbiased fashion.  Some such costs include: 1) reduction of meeting locations in the less populated portions of the US; 2) reduction in ornithological leadership positions for young scientists to attain; and 3) narrowing of editorial philosophy that scientists will face when attempting to publish their works.


    (Response): Investment risks can be minimized by sound investment practices whether we are one society or two societies.  In addition, merger of the two endowments would yield a financial basis that is very strong and capable of withstanding any future investment weaknesses and expenses. 


    How do we address holding meetings in the west on a regular basis whether we merge or don’t merge?  Location of future meetings will be a topic of our discussions, and we have already stated a goal to assure that western locations will be included for future meetings.


    How many leadership positions would be lost?  We don’t know at this point and this is one of the topics for explicit discussion.  We are sensitive to the need to maintain a strong investment and involvement of young scientists.


    Phil Stouffer could address the issue of narrowing of editorial philosophy and how this has affected authors.  Please realize that we now publish the two journals and together these outlets cover the full range of ornithological science that has always been covered by the two journals.  We don’t expect to see any changes in journal structure resulting from a merger.


    5.     We ask that you clearly articulate what your focus group believes to be the costs and benefits to COS members of a merger.  What do current COS members gain by merging?  What do current COS members loose? We would hope that the focus group would share a listing of these pros and cons with the COS membership and ask for their feedback.



    (Response): This is an excellent point, and our first call focused on just this issue.  We all agree the pros and cons need to be clearly articulated and conveyed to members to help inform everyone about a potential merger.  This should not be a financial decision.  We should only merge if we believe we can better serve our members and be a stronger voice for avian conservation. Full and clear delineation, however, will take a bit of time as we try to fully elucidate this.


    6.     We ask that you research how many current COS members will and will not join a merged society.  How will this impact the finances of the new society?


    (Response): We hope to do just that, perhaps through a poll or other means.  This topic has come up and we have not yet decided how best to assess responses, but it is likely we will do this in stages.  We will first send out an introductory letter outlining the basics of the merger idea and what some of the potential pros and cons are.  We will seek feedback from that letter and then based on that feedback, further refine our alternatives.  Finally, we will need to have a formal vote from membership to pursue a merger or not.  Along the way, the finance committee will assess the implications on finances of the AOU and the COS.


    7.     We ask that you determine how many current COS members are also AOU members and discuss how the dues structure of a merged society compares with a current model of single or dual individual society memberships.  Are revenues gained or lost when current members of both COS and AOU pay for only dues for a single merged society?


    (Response): Right now, our best data indicate that the COS has 1354 members, 1140 (84%) of whom are also members of the AOU.  The AOU has 2704 members, and 42% are also members of COS.  Dues and their financial impact is a subject for the financial working group.  It is likely that by merging, income from dues will decline, but this will depend on what dues structures are proposed.  This is a topic for our financial working group. 



    As I said, these are just some initial thoughts and our working group will delve into these points in more detail as we work through the various issues and concerns that surface.  If I have made any errors in my statements, I trust that others on our committee will jump in to correct me.  But in any case, I again want to thank you and your group for your letter and your thoughts.  You have given us some great points to consider and we will do our best to do so. 




    Martin G. Raphael

    Martin G. Raphael


    Cooper Ornithological Society

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    E-mail discussion between John Marzluff and AOU President Scott Lanyon:


    Hi Scott,
    I’m following up on the resolution that the Fellows of the AOU passed two years ago when there was talk of a merging of ornithological societies.  My reason is in response to the recent announcement that the AOU and COS are pursuing further talks about merging those societies.  I think it is great to discuss the options, but I wanted to make sure the spirit of the past resolution was also being considered.  Can you let me know what if any progress the AOU has made addressing those concerns?  And how they might be rolled into the assessment of a future merger with COS?  The point of the resolution that is most pertinent is as follows:

    Request that the AOU Council explore all means to increase membership, raise funds, engender loyalty to the AOU or its descendants, enable real science progress in Ornithology, and foster healthy interactions with sister organizations. Deliberations should consider multiple alternatives, both inside and outside of our current 'boxes'. No topics should be considered 'off-limits,' but implications of recommendations should be considered carefully and completely--in terms of financial resources, journal vitality, benefits to ornithologists and ornithology, scientific merit, tradition, history, etc. To gain widest acceptance, any new committee appointed to aid the Council in this task should be independent of the Council and all committees that developed the SFO proposal;

    John M. Marzluff
    Response from AOU President Scott Lanyon: 



    Request that the AOU Council:


    1.    explore all means to increase membership,

    ·      AOU’s philosophy is that all ornithologists in North America should be members of the AOU.  Clearly that is not now the case.  We need to take steps to find out how AOU could better serve ornithologists and then address those needs as best we can.

    ·      Council invested in cleaning up our member records in 2015.  We added and linked important information to create a database we can actually use to provide support and value to our members with different interests, needs, and communication styles.

    ·      AOU conducted a survey this year of current members, lapsed members, and ornithologists who have never been AOU members.  The AOU Membership Committee intends to follow up this year with small, targeted focus groups to explore some of the topics that emerged from the survey.

    ·      AOU Council agreed to launch a Long-Range Planning Exercise.  The purpose is not only to provide guidance to AOU Council and AOU Committees, but also to more fully engage the AOU membership.  A timeline was agreed to (to conclude at the 2016 NAOC meeting) but we are moving more slowly than anticipated due to AOU/COS merger discussions.

    2.    raise funds,

    ·      AOU hired an Executive Director (ED) with the goal of significantly increasing our fund-raising capacity to support ornithology and ornithologists. 

    ·      Initially we have been focusing on professionalizing the organization so that we may meet the expectations of sophisticated donors.  This takes time, reallocation of resources, and careful attention to nonprofit organization compliance.

    ·      AOU Council agreed to launch an annual campaign this fall.  Unfortunately, we are now behind schedule on this initiative as a result of merger discussions and planning.

    ·      AOU Council agreed to launch a capital campaign (see details below under “enabling real science progress in ornithology”).  We hope to make this a high priority for the ED and AOU President in 2016 to the extent possible in light of merger discussions.


    3.    engender loyalty to the AOU or its descendants,

    ·      In order to engender loyalty of members to AOU we need to know who our members are and be sophisticated in our methods for communicating with them.  At present, the OSNA member database and services (maintained by Schneider Group) is woefully inadequate for this purpose.  As noted above AOU has had to develop its own database in parallel to what we pay OSNA to maintain. AOU has been advocating for improved services and switching to a modern Association Management Software system for several years, but the other societies in the consortium had not shared AOU’s sense of urgency.  The OSNA Board recently agreed to invite proposals for OSNA 2.0 to launch in 2016.

    ·      One of the clear responses from the membership survey is that professional development is a critical member benefit - a benefit category that needs to be greatly expanded.  If AOU is successful at providing effective development opportunities for all career stages, this will go a long way towards engendering loyalty.

    ·      To engender loyalty, AOU is taking strategic steps to enable real science progress in ornithology (see below)

    4.    enable real science progress in Ornithology, and

    ·      For years, AOU has ensured that annual meetings take place, that the journal is published, that the checklist is updated (albeit infrequently), that the Birds of North America project was completed, and that conservation white papers are produced.  These have all facilitated science progress and all continue to be important.  However, AOU Council has identified three additional strategic steps that will support science progress in ornithology:

    o   AOU Council has concluded that one of the primary barriers to continued progress in ornithology is the difficulty in obtaining research funding, especially for field ornithology.  Therefore, Council has adopted as a capital campaign goal, the establishment of a new endowment to support a greatly enlarged research grants program – initially for early career professionals but eventually for all ornithologists once the endowment has grown sufficiently.

    o   AOU exists in part to help ornithologists to communicate the results of their science (organizing the annual meeting and publishing the AUK are key components).  Anything that restricts that communication has negative consequences for ornithology and ornithologists.  Therefore, AOU Council has concluded that making the AUK open-access should be a high priority.   Therefore, the AOU Council has adopted as a capital campaign goal, the establishment of a new endowment to support publication of the Auk such that the journal can be entirely open access.

    o   AOU Council has concluded that the ornithological community has a unique perspective on avian conservation priorities – perspectives not necessarily reflected in the funding priorities of federal agencies and private foundations.  Therefore, the AOU Council has adopted as a capital campaign goal, the establishment of a new endowment to support AOU-selected conservation initiatives.

    ·      The motion to “pursue merger” noted that unification of the ornithological community could strengthen our position to make the case for philanthropic support of these initiatives.


    5.    foster healthy interactions with sister organizations

    ·      Following the 2012 Council Resolution and strategic focus of Council, AOU actively pursued specific joint efforts.  These efforts were intended to bring ornithology and ornithologists together:

    o   The American Ornithology website was created as a single portal from which all ornithological society web sites could be accessed and on which topics of general concern could be addressed.  Initially, the website was created as a partnership between the AOU and COS, but invitations have been extended to the other societies to join.  AFO has chosen not to join at this time. WOS was considering the possibility but the AOU/COS merger discussions have put those discussions on hold.

    o   The Central Ornithological Publishing Office (COPO) was created as a central publishing office for the publication of ornithological journals.  Initially, this office was created by AOU and COS to publish the AUK and CONDOR, but the office was created with the idea that it could be expanded to serve other ornithological organizations.  At present, I’m not aware that any of those societies are seriously considering joining.

    o   The AOU has a long history of producing conservation white papers.  However, we’ve had no program that standardizes our methodology for doing these nor have we promoted this actively as a service to the broader community.  In 2014, AOU and COS agreed to form a joint “Science Arbitration Committee” to serve this function.

    o   Annual meetings were organized and held in partnership with COS and, in some years, COS and SCO.   The societies sought to be more efficient in all aspects of the planning of the meetings, to maintain the high quality scientific program, and to create greater opportunities for networking and professional development of students and early career ornithologists. 

    ·      The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group approached AOU to become an affiliated society.  We’ve had excellent discussions and this development seems likely.

    ·      The AOU works with many other societies in the planning of NAOC meetings, and has been open to requests by other societies to meet jointly in non-NAOC years as well. 

    ·      There are many other examples since 2012.  The one thing they all have in common is that the AOU officers and the ED are spending significant time managing these partnerships.  The ED’s time is understandable to some extent because the other societies don’t have full-time paid staff, however managing these interactions with sister organizations is taking away time from the significant work needed to develop and execute the fund-raising campaign that would benefit ornithology and ornithologists.

    ·      In 2014, AOU Council discussed at length what AOU’s position should be on mergers and partnerships with other ornithological organizations.  The primary conclusions were that, as the largest organization, the AOU would not initiate merger and/or partnership discussions and that decisions should be made on the basis of what is good for ornithology and ornithologists.  The result of those discussions was the following statement:

    o   The AOU should consider entering into a partnership or merger with another organization only if the AOU concludes that the new partnership would further the AOU’s overall mission without jeopardizing success of other commitments to previously established goals.




































    Following the AOU Fellows resolution in 2012, the focus of the AOU has been to:

    ·      Bring together ornithologists from throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean, to explore and carry out the science and conservation efforts needed to resolve pressing problems of our world.


    ·      Further develop a modern governance system that includes a fulltime, paid staff with the expertise to successfully undertake organizational objectives and insure long-term survival of the AOU.


    ·      Develop a formal means of obtaining donations, grants, and sponsorships from members, the general public, philanthropic institutions, and corporations.


    ·      Establish AOU as the unbiased assessor of avian conservation issues.


    ·      Develop ongoing professional development programs for members at each stage of their career.


    ·      Partner with developing countries to provide intellectual services for those engaged in ornithology to help foster conservation research in places where conservation may not be a primary concern.


    The Executive Committee and ED have spent considerable time aligning AOU’s strategic priorities prior to 2012 with those developed post-2012 to evaluate progress and impact to date.  We are using this to ensure that we are investing in efforts most important to the society, to prevent drift, and to shape the Long Range Planning effort (discussed above) critical for fundraising and long-term sustainability of the AOU.







    Deliberations should consider multiple alternatives, both inside and outside of our current 'boxes'. No topics should be considered 'off-limits,' but implications of recommendations should be considered carefully and completely--in terms of:

    1.    financial resources,

    2.    journal vitality,

    3.    benefits to ornithologists and ornithology,

    4.    scientific merit,

    5.    tradition,

    6.    history, etc.


    Marty and I have explicitly discussed the need for merger deliberations to be conducted in parallel with continued deliberations regarding alternative plans.  I say “continued deliberations” because, since the SFO discussions, both the AOU and COS have been operating as separate organizations and have been considering various alternatives on how to support ornithology.   Clearly, merger is one such alternative and at the joint AOU Council/COS Board meeting this summer we agreed that we should examine what this merger alternative would entail.  


    We are operating under the assumption that if an AOU/COS merger appears to be a financially viable alternative that could serve ornithology and ornithologists well, that eventually there would be votes in the two organizations to assess the levels of support for the merger versus support for other financially viable alternatives under consideration.  The first step is to determine if an AOU/COS merger is 1) organizationally possible, 2) financially sound, and 3) strategically good for ornithology and ornithologists.  Therefore, we’ve created a working group (Steve Beissinger, Melinda Pruett-Jones, Martin Raphael, Kim Sullivan, Blair Wolf and myself) to explore this possibility and will be soliciting input from members.


    The primary guiding principle of the working group is that we should do what is best for ornithology and ornithologists.  Although we didn’t discuss this principle at length during our conference call, my impression of the group (and certainly my personal opinion) is that what is best for ornithology and ornithologists is to use our financial resources responsibly to ensure the vitality of our journals specifically and our science generally.  A secondary guiding principle is to respect and honor the traditions and the history of the two organizations


    An initial list of merger issues has been generated by the AOU Council, COS Board, AOU Fellows (at the annual meeting), and by AOU and COS members following the OSNA announcement.  All of the non-financial issues raised so far were discussed by the merger working group in the single conference call that has taken place. We hope to communicate notes from that meeting to all members by the end of next week and to solicit input from the ornithological community.  If, after further discussion and after receiving input from members on these non-financial issues, the AOU Council and COS Board decide that a merger is possible, a separate finance working group (current and recent treasurers and the AOU ED) will do the hard work of identifying the financial implications/opportunities of a merger. 



    To gain widest acceptance, any new committee appointed to aid the Council in this task should be independent of the Council and all committees that developed the SFO proposal.


    None of the AOU representatives on the Merger Working group were involved in the development of the SFO proposal.  One AOU representative on the Financial Working group (Jim Herkert) was treasurer at the time that the SFO proposal was developed.  It is critical that he be involved in this working group because the new AOU Treasurer took office in July and we need Jim’s perspective and understanding of AOU finances.

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    Response from Martin Rapheal to comment above:


    "(Response): Right now, our best data indicate that the COS has 1354 members, 1140 (84%) of whom are also members of the AOU.  The AOU has 2704 members, and 42% are also members of COS."


    So 214 would be affected (COS members not in the AOU)? How many of these are Life members?  How would COS Life membership be changed with a merger?

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