Ornithologist: Job Description, Duties and Outlook

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become an ornithologist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and salary potential to find out if this is the career for you.

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An individual who loves birds may consider a job as an ornithologist. Ornithologists perform biological basic and applied research on birds, from their evolution and structure to their habitats and statistical trends. Predicted job growth for wildlife biologists and zoologists is slower than the average growth of all occupations.

Essential Information

Ornithologists are wildlife biologists who study birds. Their specific topics of interest related to birds may include physical structure, life cycle, behavior, origin, environmental issues and diseases. A bachelor's degree in a field like biology is the minimum requirement for becoming an ornithologist, though many also pursue graduate degrees. Ornithologists who want to work in research or academia will need to earn a Ph.D.

Required Education Bachelor's degree at minimum; master's for advancement; Ph.D. for research or teaching
Other Requirements Outdoors skills may be needed for research in remote locations
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 4% for all wildlife biologists and zoologists
Average Annual Salary (2015)* $64,320 for all wildlife biologists and zoologists

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Ornithologist Job Description

Although all ornithologists study birds, their jobs vary since different ornithologists may have different focuses of study. For example, some dedicate their work to studying bird evolution, some study how birds interact with their environments and others may determine bird population distributions across continents. The research conducted by ornithologists and other biological scientists may be classified as either basic or applied research. Basic research is conducted simply to broaden knowledge, while applied research is conducted with the intent of finding solutions to problems, such as challenges in wild bird conservation.

Ornithologists may be required to work alongside other scientists and biological technicians in a collaborative team environment. Amateur bird watchers may also make significant contributions to the team, especially in the understanding of population changes and migration. Ornithologists incorporate the data submitted by bird watchers into their research to determine the effects of pollution, disease and habitat loss. The information gathered is applied toward conservation efforts.

Ornithologist Duties

Ornithologists conduct research with specimens in a laboratory or out in the field, where they study birds in their natural environments. Those who conduct basic research must submit proposals of their research ideas and objectives to institutions, such as universities and government agencies, in order to gain funding for their research projects. Those involved in applied research usually do not choose their own topics to research. Instead, they are given guidelines by their employers regarding the direction to focus their research. When conducting research, ornithologists must keep records of the data gathered and then write up reports on the results that they find.

Ornithologist Career and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of all zoologists and wildlife biologists was expected to increase by only 4% over the 2014-2024 decade, which is slower than the average. This is due in part to budget fluctuations in the various government agencies that often hire wildlife biologists. The demand for ornithologists specifically may be somewhat limited due to the smaller size of their field. However, as many biologists retire, new job openings will be created.

The BLS reported a median annual wage for zoologists and wildlife biologists of $64,320 in 2015. State governments employed the highest concentration of workers at that time, while those who worked in federal government earned the most, at $80,710 on average. Wildlife biologists and zoologists employed by scientific research and development services earned an average of $65,920 in 2015, per the BLS.

The necessary education differs by position, but a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field is minimally required, and most of these jobs demand a graduate degree. Ornithologists can conduct basic or applied research, or do fieldwork studies on birds.

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