Ornithology: A Field for All Interests

If "bird" is your word, majoring in ornithology could be right for you. And you might be surprised by the range of careers that are available in the field!

Some weekends ago I had the privilege of gathering with 15 other young birders at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There I discovered that ornithology, the scientific study of birds, isn’t all about watching our feathered friends. In fact, bird watching is only a small part of ornithology. The majority involves website development, app creation, data manipulation, engineering, and public relations. There are jobs available for more than just biology majors. Some other areas of study include computer programming, math, writing and editing, engineering, and education.

Computer programming

It is clear that computers are the future. Ornithologists have been quick to take advantage of the many benefits the Internet brings. At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, computer programmers have developed a website, eBird, where people around the world can submit the birds they have seen. This has put a wealth of data at ornithologists’ fingertips. This website has become so important that the lab has a whole team dedicated just to eBird. Their job consists of continually adding more features to the website and making sure everything runs smoothly.

The lab also has an online bird guide. There is an army of computer programmers behind this interactive guide. Computer programmers working on the site, like the eBird team, have to ensure user satisfaction by making sure the website works and adding many innovations.

Currently various computer programmers are working on “Merlin,” a tool that can identify birds through pictures. App development is also a big part of the Cornell Lab. Much of the work involves turning the features of their websites into an app. eBird has been transformed into mobile form, and Merlin is currently in the process.

The lab is not about to stop these developments any time soon—they will most likely increase them. This means there will continue to be plenty of opportunities for computer programmers. However, there is a catch. It would be difficult for someone who is not interested in birds to create a website about birds or an app that can identify them. “We are desperate,” Chris Wood, Manager for project eBird, told us. There just aren’t that many programmers who are into birds. So now would be a great time for aspiring programmers to start bird watching and for bird lovers to start learning HTML.

Math

As mentioned above, eBird provides ornithologists with an ocean of data. Bird sightings are reported on eBird from around the world. That’s a lot of numbers. Statisticians take this data, manipulate it mathematically, and draw conclusions from it. To illustrate this, they make really cool graphs using computers. My favorite is an animated “occurrence map.” It is a map that shows the migration of birds with orange dots. They also make line graphs, bar graphs, scatter plots—basically any graph you can possibly think of.

The deductions drawn by the mathematicians help ornithologists understand the state of birds. For example, bird populations can be tracked with these numbers. This makes it easier to identify birds in danger, leading to quicker actions to help them. 

As with computer programmers, bird lovers are preferred. They will be working with birds after all. That’s the whole point of the job: to monitor birds and draw attention to any problems there might be.

Writing and editing

Writers and editors have a very important part in the ornithology world. They are the ones who spread the conclusions after the whole process of sighting is reported and results are analyzed. Writers work closely with website developers to spread this information. Most of their writing will end up online. On these websites they may write the species description of a bird, articles on conservation, or information on how ordinary people can get involved.

In my opinion, it is again absolutely essential for writers to love birds. Statisticians can work with numbers and get accurate results even if they hate birds. Writers, on the other hand, cannot. A writer’s personality should reflect in his or her writing. So if the author hates birds, it is impossible for him to write a good article on them. Writers in the ornithology field will be involved in fundraisers, campaigns to save endangered species, and the like. They must be passionate for what they’re writing about or they won’t be effective.

Education

The support of ordinary people is essential to ornithology. While some research is funded by the government, much of it comes from donations. Educators are in charge of getting people to care. Why would people donate money if they don’t know that birds are in danger?

Some educators specialize in K-12 education, others in higher ed, while others focus on the general public. Usually these teachers were at one point or another ornithologists who are no longer active in the field. This is the case for most college professors who have their Ph.D. and have decided to spread their knowledge to the next generation. Those who educate the general public might be writers or public speakers. But, as with all these career options, a love of birds is imperative. 

Biology

Ornithologists themselves may work in any of the areas I have mentioned. But there are also those who specialize in field work. They study birds in their natural habitats and take specimens to study back home. Amanda Rodewald, the Director of Conservation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is currently studying the effects of certain agricultural practices on winter migrants. Her studies have taken her out of the country, most recently this July. A job as an ornithologist is great for anyone who has a sense of adventure, wants to preserve the environment, and most importantly, you guessed it, loves birds.

Engineering

Engineering is another essential part of ornithology. Engineers might design the expansion of a lab or work on something more specialized. For example, the Cornell Lab recently did a pilot study with a newly designed (by an engineer, of course) auto-bird identification by sound called ROBIN. This microphone was mainly used to track the night calls of birds as they migrate. The microphone was able to separate the calls and record how many birds of a certain species flew overhead that night. The engineers who designed this not only needed a love of birds, but an understanding of them as well. To design ROBIN, the engineer had to know exactly how bird songs worked in order to train the microphone to pick out certain calls.

The areas I’ve mentioned above overlap. What would a website be without articles, and what would articles be without a website? There are so many opportunities in the field of ornithology, not just at Cornell, but at any other ornithology organization like Audubon. I’ve listed most of the major ones, but there is certainly something in ornithology for everyone. For anyone who likes birds, I encourage you to look into the fields that I’ve outlined today. And for anyone who likes those fields, I encourage you to look into birds. It’s a very rewarding hobby that might lead to an equally rewarding career.

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About Mariel Ortega

Mariel Ortega is a Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences major (a true mouthful) from San Antonio, Texas. But more importantly, she is the loudest and proudest member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Class of 2021. From the time she first went birding with cardboard “camouflage” to doing mad-sciencey things, Mariel’s amassed quite the arsenal of bird facts. (Did you know a peacock is a male peafowl?) Her goal is to change the world one person at a time—or more likely, one bird at a time.

 

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