Become an Ornithologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Oct 20, 2021

Should I Become an Ornithologist?

Ornithology is the study of birds. Ornithologists can study bird anatomy, behavior, ecology, evolution, or physiology. Research in these areas may require an ornithologist to observe and record bird migration patterns, mating behavior, and interactions with other animal species. Travel may be required and could involve visits to remote locations with few modern amenities, and little or no human interaction.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions; advanced degrees required for career advancement
Degree Field Zoology or wildlife biology with courses in ornithology
Experience Requirements vary widely between positions; more experience can lead to advancement in the field
Key Skills Active learning, critical thinking, observation, communication, computer, technological
Salary $58,270 (2014 median annual salary for zoologists and wildlife biologists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Bird Conservatory, O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Zoology or Wildlife Biology

Aspiring ornithologists can enroll in zoology and wildlife biology programs that include ornithology courses as elective options. Degree programs in zoology and wildlife biology cover topics like animal behavior, conservation biology, ecology, genetics, wildlife science, and vertebrate anatomy. Some of these courses require lab components. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in zoology or wildlife biology may find jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as entry-level biological technicians or wildlife biologists. These positions may involve work with birds.

Success Tips:

  • Get hands-on experience. Because many bachelor's degree programs only have one or two courses related to ornithology, students may consider volunteering or participating in an internship to gain experience. This can be done at zoos, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and local bird organizations. Some internships provide an hourly wage and count for college credit.
  • Get involved in research. Some bachelor's degree programs in the field offer credit for honors research. This is a good way to gain research experience, particularly for students planning to enroll in a graduate program.
  • Select a school with a demonstrated dedication to ornithology. While a degree program in ornithology may not exist, some schools include research centers, labs, and councils dedicated to the field. At both the undergraduate and graduate level, extra resources within a university can be useful to ornithology students.

Step 2: Find Employment in the Field with an Undergraduate Degree

After earning a bachelor's degree in zoology or wildlife biology, one may be qualified for jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or at a zoo. Avian research centers may also offer seasonal field technician positions that include a paid stipend. This option may be the final step in a career for some, or it may be a time to gain more experience before entering a graduate program.

Success Tip:

  • Continue gaining experience. Even while employed in the field, one could volunteer to gain more experience. Many ornithological organizations have programs that accept observational data of birds from people who sign up to collect it. The experience may involve observing the behavior and habits of birds that an individual wouldn't normally work with, even if already employed in the field.

Step 3: Complete a Master's or PhD Program with an Emphasis in Ornithology

Similar to undergraduate programs, some graduate programs in zoology or wildlife biology offer courses related to ornithology. One could also complete a thesis or dissertation with an ornithological focus. When considering graduate programs, students should look for faculty members with research interests in ornithology.

Success Tip:

  • Enroll in a field course. Some graduate programs have field courses that teach students unique methods of studying animals in their natural environment. This is a good way to get out of the classroom and get more hands-on experience with birds.

Step 4: Find Employment in the Field with a Graduate Degree

Employers such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service look at both an applicant's education and experience. They have different levels in which they place employees, each categorized by how much experience and education an employee has. Applicants with a graduate degree and research experience in the field may start out at a higher level than someone with a bachelor's degree. An individual with a PhD is also typically qualified to teach at the university level or conduct independent research. As an employee gains more experience more responsibilities and promotion are possible.

Success Tip:

  • Join an ornithological organization. This can help those currently working in the field to keep up with new information in ornithology. Members have access to the organization's publications, which may contain news and research highlights on current ornithological topics.
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