Want to do Ornithological Research?

Research in ornithology is not just a willy-nilly collection of observations while walking through the woods. How does one start a research project?

First, you have to develop a hypothesis – a question you would like to answer. Let’s suppose you are curious about the prevalence of partial albinism (leucistic plumage) in House Sparrows. What factors influence, either genetically or environmentally, the level of leucistic plumage (i.e. number of reduced pigmentation in feathers?) What’s the first step?

First you have to hit the research journals to dig out whatever information is already there in journals like The Journal of Ornithology, J. of Field Ornithology, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Avian Conservation and Ecology, the J. of Avian Biology, and many others. Then you will know how much has been done on your topic; you don’t need to be totally original – you can repeat someone else’s research; that will either support or conflict with the original research, which is ok. That’s how science works.

Science of Birds – Ornithology – Ornithology

After feeling confident that you have read all the pertinent literature on the subject, it’s time to develop a methodology. Are you going to capture birds, observe birds in the wild, study museum specimens, or all three? What geographic area will you study? What environmental factors will you measure? Will you take DNA samples? How many birds will you measure and/or observe? What information will you glean from each bird – sex, age, maturity, location? Will you limit your study to certain seasons or whole years? How long will the study take?

Setting aside funding and other responsibilities, a project like this will reasonably take two years, maybe more.

During the initial stages of research, you will most likely have to change some of your planned protocol. Until you start collecting data, you won’t realize that some of what you planned is not going to work and changes will be needed. After some fits and starts, you’ll get in the groove and begin getting good data.

Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station — Madison Audubon

After the data are collected you need to do some analysis. Are there geographical differences? Does sex have an effect? Age? DNA? This is where you apply statistical tests to determine if the results mean anything. Once you come up with your conclusions, you return to your original library research and compare results. Does your study validate or conflict with those of others? Does it add something new, something that hasn’t been looked at this way before? Does it open a new line of research and generate more questions?

Then, if you feel your project is a good one, you should submit it to a journal for publication. The journal will send it to reviewers who will either reject it, accept it with modifications, or accept it as is.

I’ve published over 20 research papers and the shortest time I have spent on any one project was six months. Another was six years. Honestly, doing the research is typically hard work, tedious, and often boring. But analyzing the data is exciting and writing the report for publication a stimulating exercise.

Your research may seem trivial, especially to your non-ornithologically oriented friends, but that is primarily the way science works. Like a jigsaw puzzle that requires many tiny pieces to form the big picture, science advances by building on small research projects.

Take some time to read real published research in a library or go online to google scholar.

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