Becoming an Ornithologist

Uganda 2011 (1113)
The Ornithologist from

I get regular inquiries from high school students, their parents, college students, and older folks looking for a new career, wanting to know how to get into the field of ornithology. Without reiterating everything I have already
posted on about careers which you should consult if you are interested, let me just make some general points.

Working in the field of ornithology takes many forms. There are scores if not hundreds of ways to work with birds. But many of the questions I get assume that being in the field of ornithology simply means knowing about birds. There is a lot more to being an ornithologist  than just identifying birds and knowing facts about their natural history; the more education one gets in the field the more there is to know about areas other than birds. As a comparison, think about being an architect. An architect designs buildings, but there is far more to the profession than drawing a house. An architect has to learn engineering and physics to calculate stresses and strains, what materials to use – wood, steel, concrete, marble, porcelain, brass, – and how to use them, figure lighting, insulation, plumbing, heating and cooling, the cost of construction, and lots of other things to construct a building. Likewise, a professional ornithologist needs to know math, statistics, ecology, physiology, and anatomy, and some botany  to competently analyze what birds are doing in their environment. And, like almost all professionals, needs to know how to communicate, especially in writing.

Birdwatching is of course part and parcel of ornithology but it’s only the beginning. The field of ornithology is a serious biological science. Unlike most scientific fields though, ornithology lends itself to many amateurs who can participate in the field. People can work with birds with minimal ornithological training or experience, but like most fields, the prestige, salary, and sophistication of the job tends to be commensurate with education in the field. During my education, I was paid to census birds, capture them, measure vegetation, clean cages, autopsy dead birds, and stuff them. Along the way I studied chemistry, physics, math, statistics, and developed strong writing skills (I’ve written thirty scientific publications and eight books on birds.)

I don’t know how many budding ornithologists realize what the field actually is, but it takes time and effort. If that’s what you want to do, then go for it. But you may find something along the way that interests you more. My original intention was to become an ichthyologist!

I have taught many ornithology classes at the upper undergraduate and graduate level in university, given hundreds of talks to various groups, including on cruise ships, led hundreds of field trips and bird walks, and spent many hours in the field observing birds while doing research. I’ve also traveled the world, doing a lot of birdwatching in the process. Every professional ornithologist does similar things. Would I live this professional life over again? No doubt.

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