How To Become An Ornithologist
Career Video: Ornithologist
Do you have a passion for environmental sciences and wildlife? Do you have a specific interest in birds and their role in the animal kingdom? Are you interested in helping the public and scientists better understand how the behaviors of birds can provide valuable insight into ecological cause and effect? Would you like to improve ecological systems by better understanding how humans, birds, and other phenomenon effect each others’ environments? If you have a passion for birds and a desire to improve nature through learning and teaching about birds, then a career in ornithology would be an excellent choice for you.
Why Become An Ornithologist
Ornithologists are wildlife experts who study birds—their methods of nest building, locating food, mating practices, migration patterns, and other pertinent information—to better understand this classification and provide information. The role of an ornithologist is that of a researcher and teacher. They conduct field work, which is observing birds in the wild or in sanctuary settings. This direct observation provides them with significant information to include in their research. Ornithologists also conduct research in laboratory settings, in which they may study birds in cages or analyze biological specimen (blood, tissue, and feathers).
Once they gather essential information to their research, ornithologists will relay the information to their intended audience—the public, colleagues, students, or other scientists. They provide their findings through written academic papers and journals, lectures, and lessons at wildlife and conservation settings. An important part of their job is also to write grant proposals in order to access funds for future research projects.
To be an ornithologist, individuals must possess a number of qualities that make them successful at identifying and communicating key information about birds:
- Aptitude for science
- Active learner
- Effective communicator
- Service oriented
- Insight into systems and operations
- Critical thinker
- Problem solver
Ornithologist Work Environment
Ornithologists work in many places, mostly wherever they can study birds. Their observations can take place indoors or outdoors, in both wild and artificial settings, at bird and wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, conservation organizations, research laboratories, universities, and other locales. Their work also takes place in lecture halls, conferences, libraries, and office settings.
Most ornithologists work full-time. While working indoors can provide them with consistent hours, outdoor work can be unpredictable. Weather, travel, seasonal changes, ecological disruptions, and other aspects can make working conditions erratic.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for ornithologists in 2012 was $57,710. In 2014, the BLS has all zoologists and wildlife biologists making $58,270, on average. Ornithologists’ job information is difficult to assess due to their related duties and roles to other wildlife, biological, and zoological occupations.
Those working for the federal government will most likely have the highest earnings, while those working for state governments may earn the least. The pay range for all zoologists and wildlife biologists is from $38,080 to $96,720, depending on employment, experience, and education. Funding for ornithology is unstable and may dictate a fluctuation in wages.
Ornithologist Career Outlook
The job growth for zoologists and wildlife biologists will be slower than average, at only 4 percent. While the role of an ornithologist and other wildlife researcher is important, government funding for their work is difficult to acquire. However, the good news is that many citizen scientists are providing a lot of valuable research and information to research facilities. These individuals must be trained and knowledgeable in ornithology and other ecological sciences. Such citizen scientists can be students, interns, volunteers, and other bird enthusiasts.
Fieldwork and research is extremely important to understand ecological cause and effect, so plenty of work exists for ornithologists. It is important to understand the human effect on ecological systems, but it is equally important to understand invasive species, disruptions to normal behavior, climate effect, and diseases.
Professional ornithologists typically have a master’s degree in a related subject, although many entry-level positions are available to individuals with a bachelor’s degree. Many hold doctoral degrees, which is a requirement for professorial and high-level administration positions.
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree. Many ornithological jobs are available to individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as ecology, wildlife biology, or other life sciences. It is essential for aspiring ornithologists to have a firm understanding of science and math, which includes research methods and statistics. It is equally important for students to take courses in communications—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—to gain the skills necessary to convey their findings in an academic manner.
Note: Individuals can gain experience via numerous opportunities throughout their studies, even before they enter college. Working in a zoo, for a sanctuary or wildlife refuge, or other related organization, or joining bird-watching clubs and attending workshops are great ways to gain practical and applicable experience.
Step 2: Earn a master’s degree. The majority of professional positions available to ornithologists will require at least a master’s degree in zoology, wildlife biology, ornithology, or other related field. A master’s degree allows individuals to acquire more specific education, as well as hone their research skills. Writing a thesis is the culmination of obtaining this degree and is an essential start to pursuing a path in ornithological research.
Step 3: Earn a doctoral degree. Not all positions will require this level of education; however, those who wish to conduct research independently or hope to work as a professor or high-level manager will most likely need a Ph.D. to advance in the field. Individuals looking to work at this capacity should earn a degree that is directly related to the type of work they wish to conduct.