So, you want to be an ornithologist?
Updated: Nov 10
The path to being an ornithologist may not seem easy, but fortunately, there are many options. If you enjoy this fun and informative read from guest author, Holly Garrod, please subscribe to our blog!
Today, we introduce guest author Holly Garrod, the president of the Western Bird Banding Association, the research coordinator of Costa Rica Bird Observatories, and a North American Banding Council certified trainer. Enjoy!
I did not choose the bird-life, the bird-life chose me, at around 8 years old to be exact. I am one of those weird people that has known my career path since I was a child, though I do not know many kids who go around saying they wanted to be an ornithologist. For me, growing up in the front range of Colorado, I was surrounded by wildlife. When I had the chance to witness the epic Sandhill Crane migration in Monte Vista, CO, and got a behind the scenes peek at some duck banding, courtesy of my friend's wildlife biologist parents, I was sold. And although I was determined to become an ornithologist, I had almost no idea how to achieve my dream job.
Ornithology is the study of birds
Before we jump into the pathways of becoming an ornithologist, let's talk about what an ornithologist is! In the most basic of terminology, an ornithologist is someone who studies birds. Some might assume you need a Ph.D. to be considered an ornithologist, however, a Ph.D. is not 'required' to simply study birds. There are numerous ornithologists of fame and lore that did not have those three letters after their name:
Jack Black (wait, you haven't seen The Big Year?)
These ornithologists are renowned, yet not a single one of them continued their education into a doctoral program. A degree does not make a person an ornithologist.
Career fields in ornithology and birding
Unlike more well-known professions, the path to becoming an ornithologist isn't quite as straightforward. There are multiple different ways to approach the ornithologist life, here are a few of the more common career paths:
Non-profit Sector. This includes work for organizations like the National Audubon Society. Often these groups are education driven, relying on sparking an interest in the general public to help raise funds for conservation.
Pros: This work is often well-rounded. It includes public engagement, education and outreach; research, fundraising, a little bit of everything all contributing to the great goal of saving the planet.
Cons: Ever wished you could work 5 jobs and get paid 1 salary? Then you'll love non-profit work. Non-profits often have limited funding which means employees can be overworked and asked to do jobs sometimes beyond their scope
Government work. Think about your outdoor government branches: Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, US Fish and Wildlife, US Geological Service, the list goes on.
Pros: Government work has some mad benefits and consistent pay. Sound lame? Work a few field jobs and then tell me what you think. But in all seriousness, these jobs are a great way to get to know America's public lands more intimately, if you know what I mean
Cons: Beaurocracy, am I right? Often these jobs can be competitive and require prior government work to keep moving up the food chain
Academia. Here you have your college professors, often splitting their time between teaching classes and conducting their own research with the help of graduate students.
Pros: Once you're a tenured professor, talk about job security for life. Universities are often well-funded for research, plus you get the opportunity to teach impressionable, young undergraduates.
Cons: It is getting near impossible to find jobs in this field. Academia is incredibly demanding, often requiring constant publishing in high impact journals.
Private Sector. Better known as consulting. These jobs are often the best paid, but require some of the harder work being privately contracted.
Pros: You will definitely make some mad cash, and get to watch birds while you're at it!
Cons: Consulting companies are often contracted by energy companies like oil or wind, so you might be working for people with some questionable ethics. Also, a lot of report writing to consider.
Husbandry. These jobs can span anywhere from zookeepers to animal handlers to breeders.
Pros: Bird fondlers delight! This is one of the most hands-on job experiences, getting to know birds from a personal perspective.
Cons: These jobs can require you to become the personal slaves of birds: preparing them gourmet meals and a lot of cleaning poop, like a lot of poop.
So, how do you get started and how do you decide which path is correct for you? A difficult question indeed. The best way to get started is to start looking at local volunteering opportunities - this a great way to figure out what aspects of ornithology catch your interest the most. These can be as simple as attending bird walks at your local Audubon chapter, volunteering at a local bird banding station, helping out graduate students with their research, or spending a day a week at a wildlife rehab center; really just ask around any wildlife or conservation organization where you can help because chances are they are always looking for volunteers. What do all these options have in common? Getting started in wildlife biology fields requires contributing a lot of hard work and earning a low to non-existent salary in the early days of a career. Most people in this field do not stick around for the paychecks, they stick around for the love of the work.
How do I find ornithology jobs?
Once you've got yourself a basic background in some volunteer activity involving a bird or two, the next step is to start applying to field jobs. These jobs are often temporary, employing people for 3-12 month stints on a variety of different research projects. Want to get an idea of some of the possible jobs? Pop on over to the Texas A&M wildlife job board or the Ornithology Exchange website. These positions allow applicants to experience the colorful world of fieldwork, including spending time in some of the most remote and beautiful locations around the globe. Over the course of your fieldwork, expect to meet many eccentric bird people, test your limits of rustic living accommodations, and see birds David Attenborough waxes poetically about during your favorite BBC documentaries. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Is a degree needed to work in ornithology?
Do I need a degree to work with birds and other wildlife? Not necessarily. People arrive at the good word of the bird from all manner of different paths. But a degree will certainly help. A Bachelor's of science focusing on wildlife biology or zoology is usually a good place to start. While no universities offer a bachelor's in straight-up ornithology, there are many universities offering excellent wildlife programs. Plus, it's important to better understand multiple aspects of the ecosystems birds live in, making it important to get a well-rounded degree.
What about graduate work? This really depends on where you want to take your ornithology dream. If you're still not sure, a master's is usually a good place to start to get a permanent, salaried position with government agencies, non-profit organizations, or private companies. Often, even a bachelor's degree is sufficient, however, a master's might just give you a little more of an edge. But if want people to refer to you as Dr. Ornithology, you will need a Ph.D. - though keep in mind these degrees are not for the faint of heart. A Ph.D. requires 5-8 years of intensive research, teaching, and selling your soul for a degree to stay on track to continue within academia or at least some form of research.
Want to gain even more insight into the life of birds? Here are a few of our top recommendations for ornithology textbooks:
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The Handbook of Bird Biology
Manual of Ornithology
Looking back, I wish this kind of information existed when I was trying to figure out the ornithology path. And currently, I have people younger and older reaching out to me weekly asking me how to break into the field. Some people get drawn in by sexy bird fondling photos on Instagram, and other people pick up a pair of binoculars and see the magic of a feathered dinosaur right before their eyes. Regardless of how, and when, you get drawn to this wonderful field, it takes a lot of hard work, both to break into the field and to stay in it. But then again, nobody ever said saving the birds was going to be easy.
Want to see Holly's work? Check out her Instagram!