So You Want to be an Ornithologist

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I get regular inquiries from high school and college students, and even 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 in detail on about careers, let me make some general points.

Most everyone who aspires to be an ornithologist is enthralled by birds, either generally or by a specific group, like hawks or parrots. These enthusiasts have spent time watching birds, watching TV specials, reading, and perhaps are avid birdwatchers and members of their local Audubon Society. But there is a lot more to ornithology than identification and natural history. One cannot learn to be an auto mechanic by identifying car models.

But certainly, identifying car models is an important step in becoming a mechanic just as birdwatching is of course part and parcel of ornithology. But it’s only the beginning. The field of ornithology is a serious biological science, but unlike most scientific fields, ornithology lends itself to many amateurs who can participate in the field. People can work with birds with minimal ornithological training or experience, 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 many other scientific subjects and developed strong writing skills (I have thirty scientific publications and ten books on birds.)

But ornithology is a serious science and like most areas of science, the prestige, salary, and sophistication of the job tends to be commensurate with one’s education. There are lots of ways to work with birds. You could be a wildlife researcher, zoo specialist, epidemiologist, teacher, professor, museum curator, nature guide, etc. But to be considered an ornithologist, you need an advanced degree like an M.S. or Ph.D. A professional ornithologist needs to know math, statistics, ecology, physiology, anatomy, and some botany to competently analyze how birds work and how they are doing in their environment. And, like almost all professionals, needs to know how to communicate, especially in writing.

I don’t know how many budding ornithologists realize what the field actually entails, 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, in high school, 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.

3 thoughts on “So You Want to be an Ornithologist”

  1. I am seriously pursuing Ornithology independently, am fully aware I probably couldn’t land a job without a degree but what I mostly hope to gain is to pass the Comprehensive Ornithology Course provided by Cornell and potentially purchase the CEUs regardless if they’ll be accepted by facilities. It still would be nice to try to apply with it on my resume and have a certification from THE bird people that says “Hey! They know birds.”
    I couldn’t possibly in my wildest dreams go to college so this online course and online blogging about it will be enough for me.

    What I would love to discuss is what courses/topics should I study to build up to Ornithology? There are plenty of books and free online courses like from Coursera and Khan Academy to study specific topics, so far I’ve personally concluded I’ll need:

    animal biology

    your additions:
    statistics, ecology, physiology, anatomy, and botany

    Any input from you Dr.Lederer or anyone would be most helpful to me and other fellow hobbyists, thank you!

  2. Alyssa Martin

    Hi Dr. Lederer! Im a 15 year old American Heritage Girl, I am looking to complete my ornithology badge. For the badge I need to interview a career ornithologist and ask you several questions about your career. Would you be interested in helping me out by answering a few?

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