Careers in Ornithology

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Biologist with Raptor1An ornithologist studies birds, but there is no clear job description for the profession.  Many ornithologists do not work exclusively with birds. They may be ecologists, geneticists, wildlife biologists, land managers, teachers, researchers, outdoor educators, or tour leaders. They may work for federal or state government agencies, non-profit organizations, for-profit companies, or free-lance. They may work exclusively with birds or only as a small part of their job. Ornithologists may work in the field with populations of wild birds, in the laboratory , or on data on their computer. They may specialize in a particular bird group or be a generalist.

What is Ornithology?

A fledgling ornithologist needs to take basic courses in science and math in college because understanding any group of organisms requires a background knowledge of anatomy, physiology, ecology, evolution, genetics, cell and tissue structure, and population biology. At least one and preferably two years of chemistry should be taken. Mathematics, at least through analytic geometry and preferably a year of calculus, is very helpful, as is statistics. Writing and English courses are very helpful. Appropriate college majors are biology, wildlife biology, zoology, or some equivalent. The goal should be to get a well-rounded education in the sciences.  In high school, take as many science, math, and writing/English courses as possible.

If you are searching for a college with the appropriate degrees and courses or one which offers one or more ornithology courses (most four-year colleges do), check with your high school counselor or use a search engine on the WWW to find colleges in your area; then check their websites. I am not aware of any university or college that offers a degree in Ornithology. ( Sturt University in Australia offers a postgraduate diploma or certificate in the field.) There are a few courses of study in the field, but no onlie degree courses that I am aware of. Some Information.

Sometimes a Master’s degree is required. The difference between a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science degree is that, in addition to graduate level course work, the student does a research project and presents the project verbally and in writing to a committee of professors. This experience allows the student to get advanced training in the field of ornithology that cannot be had by coursework .

       Then there is the PhD . The Bachelor’s degree should take between 4-5 years, the Master’s 2-3 years, and the PhD another 3-5 years (a Master’s is not necessary for a PhD, however). The PhD requires more graduate level coursework and another thesis research project, along with oral and written examinations. Jobs for the PhD-prepared ornithologist include all of those above plus additional opportunities such as teaching at the university level and doing independent research. See Guide To Graduate Studies in Ornithology in North America for more information.

There are jobs available to those with a bachelor’s degree but they are rarely high paying ones. Jobs in ornithology and environmental opportunities may not be as abundant or well-paid as those for computer software designers, but they are there and will continue to be as long as people are interested in birds and other wildlife. There are other jobs in natural resources.  Full time paid positions with zoos, wildlife parks, veterinary medicine, and conservation that are exclusively devoted to birds are not common. You may be interested in Environmental Jobs, in general. See EnvironmentalScience.org for more info.

For specific questions , e-mail the Ornithologist.

Brief biography of Ornithology.com’s scientist, pictured right.

Common Questions:

Salary: There is no standard or even average starting salary for an ornithologist as few people are hired strictly as ornithologists – they are hired as teachers, professors, wildlife biologists, environmental scientists, environmental educators, ecologists, tour leaders, etc. so the salary range applies to those fields and the organization that is hiring. The salary also depends on the level of education one has attained. So one could make $5,000 a year or $150,000 a year.

Joe and DuckTools: I am often asked what tools an ornithologist uses. This is hard to answer, as ornithologists do lots of different things. In the field they may use binoculars, telescopes, nets or traps, bands, measuring and weighing equipment, notebooks, stakes, markers, surveying equipment, geographical positioning system instruments, etc. In the lab or office they may use microscopes, chemicals, test tubes, syringes, slides, vials, cages, computers, calculators, etc. Some ornithologists use lots of tools, some very few. Depends simply on what they are doing.

melTypical Day: this is also a hard question to answer. A typical day depends on who the ornithologist is and what job he/she has. I teach, talk to students and colleagues, go to meetings, read books and articles, answer e-mail, work on my website, go out in the field to collect research data on birds which I then bring back to my office and analyze with statistics. I might write a grant proposal in order to generate funding for a project. Then after a few months I might be able to write a research paper for a journal if the research was good enough. I may give bird walks or talks to the general public and occasionally I do a wildlife assessement for some environmental project. I serve on a bunch of wildlife or environmentally oriented committees and I am also writing another book on birds.

How did I get interested in ornithology? I had an excellent instructor in College.

What is my favorite bird? I have none.

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