Ornithology is the literally the study of birds. It is a true science of course but it is also a way of life for many amateur bird watchers. Most ornithologists started out as bird watchers. A few lucky ones get to be paid for their passion. The rest of us can still enjoy this enjoyable pastime, studying and observing the birds of our world.
Nineteenth century ornithology was primarily about taxonomy and collecting specimens. This was Darwin’s job on the Beagle. Although he also made observations about behaviour, his foremost job was collecting museum specimens, which were important for identification and descriptions of new species. They would also be pivotal in his development of the theory of Natural Selection as the mechanism for Evolution.
Luckily modern ornithology is not just about shooting birds and stuffing them. In fact, now that most of the world’s birds have been identified and classified, the work of modern ornithologists is about gathering data vital to the conservation of birds in the face of habitat destruction and human interference in natural ecosystems. And of course it is also about increasing scientific knowledge about birds: where do birds live, what do they eat, how do they reproduce and care for their young? And all of these questions can be answered not only by professional ornithologists but also by ‘Twitchers’, bird watchers with a keen eye and a love for their subjects.
To become an ornithologist does require University study and a higher degree, usually in Biology or Zoology. To make it to the top of the field, though, a PhD is also necessary and the willingness and ability to publish scientific papers in recognised journals. Other jobs in the field include support jobs, such as helping ornithologists with data collection and analysis. Zoos also employ veterinarians and vet assistants who have specialised training in avian biology.
Ornithology is a specialised field but there is still room for bird watchers. In many countries yearly counts are made of bird species and this work is primarily carried out by ‘twitchers’. Although they aren’t paid for thi, they can be very competitive, especially when seeing how many species can be identified in an area in a single 24 hour period. Twitchers also play an important role in conservation, often at the forefront of efforts to protect prime habitats for endangered species.
Another aspect of ornithology in the general sense is keeping birds as pets and this is an area that many bird lovers indulge in and which also creates quite a few jobs, in pet stores and pet supply shops as well as in veterinarian clinics. The most common pet species are cockatiels and parakeets, but many other species are now kept in captivity, in zoos or private collections or as pets. Keeping these birds healthy and in breeding condition requires specialised knowledge of diet and behavior especially if they are to be bred successfully. Captive breeding programs are now vital in the preservation of some avian species because of habitat destruction, and there are many facts about these birds that were learned from observations in captivity because it is so difficult to observe them in the wild.
Another area of bird study is rescue and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wild birds. This is an area in which I have been involved for years. My degree in Zoology led to paid work as an oyster parasitologist but I have always indulged in my love of birds in unpaid work such as bird watching and avian rescue and care. This is a huge field of knowledge which years of study have only barely scratched the surface. I have to call on a wide range of people when new birds come in: other carers who have had experience with that species, bird books and their authors, veterinarians and university professors have all been called on in the past to help me out. In return, I freely share what little knowledge I have when others need it.
A relatively new branch of bird study is photography, especially footage suitable for TV programs and wildlife shows. This is another field where professionally paid people are highly trained and the competition is fierce for these positions, However, with modern digital photographic equipment, many people now take photos of birds as a hobby. I know that photographing and also painting and sketching birds has added greatly to my understanding of their biology. They can be hard to photograph though because they generally are so small and fast moving, so I take a lot of photos of birds in care in order to get close ups without huge and expensive lenses.
So from twitching to photography to pet bird care to professional Ornithologist, there is a wide variety of ways that we can all enjoy the field of ornithology.