Graduate Programs in Ornithology

Dec 08, 2018

Scientists who focus on the field of ornithology might monitor endangered birds, study migration patterns, work to understand bird-based illnesses, or consider the effects of climate change on bird mating behaviors. Those who wish to purse this field as a profession may consider earning a master's degree or a PhD. Typically, the degree pursued will be in the area of biology; however students could also consider graduate degrees in zoology, evolutionary biology, or wildlife biology.

Potential Graduate Programs

Those who wish to study ornithology will undertake graduate-level education in biology, at a program with a specialization in ornithology or where a student can identify faculty members pursuing significant research into this field. Students can pursue graduate study at the master's or PhD level.

Master's in Biology

One potential graduate degree to consider is a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) in biology. A master's degree program typically requires 30-36 credit hours of graduate study. Students typically complete a thesis demonstrating independent research; however some programs may have an option to complete oral examinations showing a breadth of knowledge in the subject area.

Ph.D. in Biology

Students who wish to study ornithology at the highest level to prepare for a career as a teacher or scientific researcher may consider earning the Ph.D. in Biology or Evolutionary Biology. Program requirements will typically include the completion of coursework, comprehensive oral examinations, and a dissertation. Supervised teaching or curatorial work will be an important component of the program. Reading knowledge of a foreign language may be required.

Graduate Courses

At the master's or Ph.D. level, students will have the opportunity to pursue advanced coursework in ornithology. Some examples of courses may include:

Scientific Integrity in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

This course will cover the ethical requirements for conducting scientific research. Students will learn about the best practices on how to manage their data and publish responsibly. The requirements for financial grants, including those from the federal government, will be reviewed.

Avian Conservation and Management

Students will be introduced to the identification and classification of both upland and migratory birds. Students will also learn about the life history strategies and ecology of the birds. Lastly, they can also have an opportunity to gain knowledge on how to manage various species of birds.

Biodiversity in Managed Forests

Students will learn how forests are managed in order to protect a range of natural species. They may discuss forest stands, diverse landscapes, and regions within the forest. They will learn how habitat conditions affect various wildlife within the forest.

Behavioral Ecology

Students in this course will focus upon animal behavior and how it affects the ecology of that organism. Topics may include mating behaviors, foraging, or territoriality. The way behavior affects species survival will be an important consideration.

Raptor Ecology

Birds of prey will be the focus of this course. Students may study the birds' reproductive strategies, foraging techniques, and predator/prey interactions. Field study may be a component of this course.


Students taking this course will understand the application of statistical methods to biological research. An introduction to computational procedures will be an important component of the course. Some of the specific topics which students may encounter include t-tests, regression theories, and other statistical techniques.

Admission Requirements

Admissions to graduate programs at either the Master's or Ph.D. level is competitive. Applicants are expected to possess a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate coursework should reflect a range of experience in the natural sciences and mathematics, including biology, calculus, physics, and ecology. A minimum of a 3.0 GPA is typically expected. GRE results must also be provided. In addition, programs will consider faculty recommendations, undergraduate research experience or publication, clarity of writing, and whether a faculty sponsor will be able to assist with the student's research interests.

Graduate study at the master's or PhD level can be an entryway into the field of ornithology. Specific classes may vary per program, but students can expect to take some common courses such as those pertaining to ecology and the management of birds.

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