I recently changed jobs. I went from being a part-time National Park Ranger and freelancer to a full-time Avian Field Ecologist.

This title basically means I get paid to watch birds (like the above Indigo Bunting I digiscoped with my iPhone and Swarovsksi Scope)  before wind farms, solar panels and pipelines go under construction (or sometimes I get to id bird parts found post construction).

As the company has been introducing me to the rest of the staff and clients, a description of my talents caught my attention. In one document, I was referred to as a “self-taught ornithologist.”

I am not an ornithologist. At all. I’ve never claimed to be one. But it started an interesting debate about who exactly can call themselves an ornithologist. There really is no clear definition. Most dictionaries describe ornithology as a branch of zoology dealing with birds. My understanding is that an ornithologist is someone with an advanced degree in biology with an emphasis on birds. When I explained that to some of my new coworkers, one responded with, “By your definition, I’m an ornithologist, but you know way more about birds than I do.”

So how does this happen? Well for one thing, it’s hard to find steady work as an ornithologist. If you have an advanced degree in biology with an emphasis on birds , it doesn’t guarantee that you will always work with birds. You may work in biology, but it could be in any field.

Another challenge to bird research is that it is woefully underfunded and relies heavily on citizen science. Think about all the opportunities one can have for volunteering and birds. Because of my flexible freelance schedule the last few years, I’ve had plenty of time to take part in projects that were volunteer but were part of studies. Remember the whole Cornell Ivory-billed Woodpecker search and how you literally had to apply for a volunteer position to pay your own way down to Arkansas for 2 weeks to try and look for that bird? Count me as one of the many who signed up for that. Birding is very citizen science based, birders volunteer for Breeding Bird Atlases, migratory tracking, banding projects–we do it for free because we love it and we often get research experience that those with advanced degrees have paid for through the nose.

So, how about you, how do you define ornithologist?



Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.