An ornithologist is an expert in the study of birds (ornithology), which is in itself a specialised branch of zoology.
An ornithologist is an animal expert who studies the biology, physiology, care and curation of birds, both domestically and in the wild. The role typically involves either acting as curator in a zoo, bird sanctuary or wild animal park, or as a field specialist out “in the wild.” In fact, most ornithologists have to deal with both roles. There is also an academic aspect, where it is possible for the ornithologist to become a professor, and teach others at university.
The scope of work includes feeding, care, curator duties, providing a habitat and providing information to park guests on the domestic side, plus the study, physiological examination, reporting and preparation of reports and media when out in the field. Given the huge breadth of species in the bird world, many ornithologists choose to specialise in a particular species or sub-species, therefore allowing them to become specialists in a given sector. This does of course mean the likelihood of a great amount of travel, either for field work or to assist a colleague at another zoo or sanctuary.
Salary is highly variable depending on whether the candidate chooses to work at a sanctuary (the lower end of the pay scale), out in the field (better remuneration but temporary contracts only for the most part), or as a university professor (most highly paid).
Candidates should have modest expectations when considering a curator role at a sanctuary or wild animal park. As a graduate student/ fellow, the salary would be just enough to cover living costs and tuition whilst working at the bird sanctuary and supporting one’s own studies. Technicians and curators usually make about $30,000 a year in the USA (that translates to around £19,000, although salaries in the UK at small sanctuaries can be significantly less).
According to the respondent for this feature, a university professor in the US can expect to make around $60,000 per year, although it was noted that it can take a long time to get tenure and progress to this level of salary. University professors in the UK earn around £45,000. It is also possible for the lecturer to write papers and studies for magazines and periodicals as a way of increasing this income.
- Manage extensive travel and field studies
- Preparation and planning for field activities
- Report, study and organise photography from field activities
- Feeding and care of animals (husbandry) based in the ornithologist’s domestic sanctuary
- Curator duties, including provision of information to park guests
- Provision, consultation and improvement of bird habitats
- Physiological examination and veterinary duties
- Reporting and preparation of recommendation documents and scientific or academic papers
There are several academic paths open to aspiring ornithologists. The most relevant university degrees are in zoology or biology, followed by a graduate degree (i.e. a Master's or a PhD) in a speciality area, such as animal behaviour. However, it is also possible for a graduate in a different subject to start working at a sanctuary and learning some on the job skills; this is, of course, a more challenging option in terms of furthering one’s own career in ornithology.
The candidate is advised to focus on courses which provide a solid background in both organismal (study focusing on a single form of life) biology and in ecology (which is the study of the interconnected relationship between animals and the ecosystems in which they exist).
- Have a desire to work with a range of birds or a specific sub-species
- Develop a thorough understanding of animal biology and conservation
- Be able to organise complex overseas research, photographic or analytical projects
- Be able to work in a team environment and assist other research centres
- Be prepared to travel to far-away countries and stay for long periods (around one month, typically)
- Have a readiness to continue improving knowledge and be able to communicate it to others
The working conditions vary considerably depending on where the candidate will be practising ornithology. For example, a professor will be working in a university lab or lecture theatre, so will need to understand the importance of communication and knowledge transfer in an academic environment. Conversely, an ornithologist who specialises in field work will need to be patient, prepared to get dirty, and be able to manage complex logistical planning considerations whilst ‘on the fly.’ There will also be some regular long haul flights to deal with.
ExperienceHandling animals involves a lot of on-the-job training on things which are difficult to teach in school or university. Field work is especially demanding of the candidate’s ability to be flexible; they may find themselves completing pre-research work, plotting statistics, carrying out scientific laboratory work or practical work in other sanctuaries, all of which require aptitude in different skill areas, and these are skills which broaden with experience.
Ornithologists with many years of experience in a specific species sub-type have the opportunity to be recognised as species specialists, and often give seminars in education centres and other ornithological centres. It is also possible for them to have papers and photographs published in leading magazines and journals, such as National Geographic, resulting in a secondary occasional revenue stream, and a rise in status.
In the UK, the largest and most well-known large zoos are Chester Zoo (Cheshire), Whipsnade Wild Animal Park (Bedfordshire), Colchester Zoo (Essex), Twycross Zoo (Warwickshire), Dudley Zoo (Birmingham), Longleat Safari Park (Wiltshire) and ZSL London Zoo (London). There are many thousands of bird sanctuaries and parks specialising in birds around the world, and it is important for the candidate to realise that there will be regular overseas travel; this of course means that it is possible for the ornithologist to accept a full-time placement in another country, so it is best not simply to focus on the UK.
Jerry Jennings is the leading ornithological expert and owner of Emerald Forest Bird Gardens in California, USA. Jerry's interest in toucans eventually led him to visit Central and South America, where he decided to open a second sanctuary dedicated to this unusual creature. He is also the founder of the American Federation of Aviculture.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
A love of birds and wildlife. A desire to travel, see far-off lands, organise field trips and be considered an expert at the top of my game; also, the desire for a considerable international reputation (which I feel I have achieved now, after many years of dedicated care work with toucans). Also, the chance to CARE about the animals I love, and to work in a specialised field of zoology where I can apply my skills and knowledge, help people learn about these wonderful animals, and take supervision for the husbandry of species under our care.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
Every day is different but it starts with checking emails and responding to telephone inquiries; it’s a business in that respect and needs to be managed as such. Then we check the birds, handle the staff rotas and allocate the feeders for taking care of the babies, and so forth.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
There is no one type of common problem. For the most part, things run very smoothly because we have an excellent and highly dedicated staff.
What do you like most about the job?
The opportunity to be my own boss, to be outdoors a good part of the day and to travel extensively to the Neo Tropics to study the very same species in the wild, from which I garner new ideas on how to manage the bird collection here in California.
What do you like least about the job?
Nothing. I love what I do.
What are the key responsibilities?
I travel a lot and take part in field studies, which of course involves a lot of pre-trip preparation. Then of course there is the reporting, the actual study and photography as a result of field activities – all of this gives me new ways in which I can manage my own collection of birds at Emerald Forest. Feeding and care for animals (husbandry) takes a lot of time and effort, but we have a great staff who are almost autonomous. They can deal with most things themselves, although sometimes there will be issues that come up - veterinary complications, for example.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, e.g. A Levels?
Yes, there are a few different paths to entering zoology under a specific sub-topic, and most are relatively open. Anyone thinking of doing this from a young (ish) age should be thinking about focusing on biology, animal behaviour, ecology, geography, or even a PhD in ornithology, depending on the area where they are based. I’m in the US, so with some thinking outside the box, there are different ways to get to where you want to be, even if you have not directly studied the care of birds. There's a lot of space in there for finding your own path.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
You will be unlikely to get rich doing this; estimate around $30,000 (about £19,000, although salaries in the UK at small sanctuaries can be significantly less), and pad it out with seminars, consultation work and published papers, or photography, if you have the time and inclination to learn it.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Be patient and only do it because you enjoy it.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Just be yourself and commit yourself to an unending path of learning and improvement. Also, develop a deep appreciation of the people you work with, understand their strengths and weakness and encourage their personal development also. You are a team.
Any closing questions or comments?
Be prepared to travel a lot. Like, almost every month. I’m just on my way to Peru for three weeks on Friday of this week – again . . .