This section provides a personal glimpse into the jobs of those pursuing careers in bird-related fields. These interviews offer important insights for young birders interested in continuing to work with and further their knowledge of birds. There are many places one could go with a passion for birds and knowledge about various aspects of them, so here is the place to begin or continue searching for the career that fits your interests.
Research Wildlife Ecologist
Kim Nelson Oregon State University Favorite Bird: Marbled Murrelet
What do you do? I conduct research on the ecology and habitat associations of seabirds, specifically using modeling and habitat data to better understand and help resolve wildlife conservation and management issues. I work primarily on Marbled Murrelets but have also studied the nest-site characteristics, stand and landscape associations, abundance, and nesting behavior of forest birds in Oregon and other seabirds of the Pacific, including Japanese Murrelets, Long-billed Murrelets, Caspian Terns, and mixed seabird colonies in the Bering Sea. The best part of my job is having the freedom to work on what I want and participating in the research from beginning to end, including writing grants, working with great agencies and people, and getting out in the field every spring and summer. My job is a non-tenure track research position so teaching is optional.
How do you get to where you are? I always tell students that they do not have to have a straight path to where they want to be or what they want to do. In fact, a winding path can provide more insight and be more fun. I loved science from the time I was very young but did not think it would be a good profession. Therefore, my undergraduate degree was in the arts, not science. Once I graduated though, I knew I wanted to be a scientist so I worked at OMSI in Portland and as a research assistant at Oregon State University on various bird related projects before going back to school to study wildlife science. Do you have any advice for young birders? Once you have an idea about what you might want to study or where you might want to work, seek out professionals that have those jobs, ask questions about opportunities and get input on next steps in your career path. Don’t be afraid to connect with professionals. A good place to meet and talk with academic and agency people is at annual fish and wildlife or professional bird organization meetings. If you are looking for an advanced degree, potential graduate students often work on projects as research assistants for a professor first and then apply for graduate positions with that professor if the research and objectives meet their needs. If they know your name and how you hard you work, the path to getting into an advanced degree program might be easier.
writer and researcher
Noah Strycker National Geographic, Quark Expeditions, American Birding Association
What do you do? I am an author, birding tour guide, and ornithologist. Studying birds is the best job on Earth!
Is there anything about your job that you DON'T like? For the past 10 years, I’ve spent more than half of my time on the road. I love to travel, but it would be much harder without a good support team at home.
How did you get where you are? I got hooked on birds when my fifth-grade teacher suction-cupped a bird feeder to our classroom window in Eugene, Oregon, and have never looked back. I did a wildlife management degree in college and spent each summer working “bird bum” internships at banding stations and field camps. After graduation, I realized I could do those things full time! These days, I lead birding tours and write for books and magazines. I particularly love Antarctic birds and am researching Chinstrap Penguins for my Master’s degree. Oh, and I did a worldwide Big Year in 2015, spotting 6,042 species in 365 days! I think there are many ways to build a birdy career, with one real prerequisite: Must love birds.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Just go for it! Show your enthusiasm. The more people you inspire, the more opportunities you’ll find.
W. Douglas Robinson Oregon State University Favorite bird: I like them all, even starlings
What do you do? I am a professor at a large research university. I love the ability to think broadly about birds and how they live their lives. Creating new knowledge about birds is very exciting. Relaying that knowledge to students and the public is also very satisfying. The best thing about my job is that I am always learning new things about birds, about the environment, and about how people interact with birds and their environment. The job is very creative and very intellectually stimulating. I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world. I also have learned to manage my time well, so I still get to count birds almost every day. Most people only get to watch birds on the weekends, but as a professor, my work revolves around birds so I get to study them everyday.
How did you get where you are? Being a professor almost always requires a PhD, so you will be in school a long time. But it is SO worth it. The pay is good. In the United States, your starting pay these days would probably be about $70,000 at most schools; higher at others. After you work really, really hard for 6 years, you may earn tenure, which is a privilege that gives you a permanent job so you can study topics that might be controversial without risking losing your job. The idea is that professors are fair and objective, even if they might learning something certain people do not like. They have job security, which is also very rare these days. So, do well in school. Take your courses seriously; all of them, not just the ones you think are interesting. And find supportive graduate school advisors so you can succeed in graduate school.
Do you have any advice for young birders? You can earn a living and have a happy life studying birds. There is so much to see and learn, you will never run out of amazing experiences. One of the most important things you can do is figure out how to guard your time so you can go look at birds. Beyond that, knowing that knowledge you create about birds, by entering the data into eBird, is very valuable. So do a good job identifying and counting birds accurately!
What do you do? On its face, my work primarily focuses on protecting native Hawaiian watershed forest from the threat of invasive species and climate change. In practice, our work fencing and removing non-native ungulates and invasive weeds protects what is left of a unique habitat that is home to some of the world’s coolest, and most threatened birds. Day to day, I plan, supervise and implement field operations with my team including helicopter transport, hunting, weed control, GIS and mobile data collection apps, trail cameras and IT equipment maintenance. The payoff really comes when I get into the field with my team, and get the chance to hike the streams and forests where ‘akikiki, ‘akeke’e, i’iwi and puaiohi, among others, still persist!
Is there anything about your job that you DON'T like? The more responsibility you gain, the more paperwork there is… But seriously, work hard to pick up as many skills as you can through school and you’re first several jobs, and along the way identify the specific parts of the work that you enjoy the most, or feel have the most value to you. Then hone those, search them out in progressive professional positions and emphasize them to craft your own career.
How did you get where you are? After undergrad, I cast my net wide and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to serve as an intern on an NSF-funded project in Hawaii. I turned a 5 month position into a year of work in a few different positions. After that I chased birds through seasonal jobs, traveled, farmed and landscaped for a couple years before taking another job in Hawaii, on the island of Kaua’i working with the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project (kauaiforestbirds.org). Following a seasonal position, I was offered a full-time position and two years later became the project’s field supervisor. I helped apply for a grant that would later fund (some of) my graduate work on the newly Endangered ‘akikiki and ‘akeke’e. After receiving my M.S. in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, I had the opportunity to apply for an exciting position with The Nature Conservancy working to protect the very same forest bird habitat from some of the threats that I had identified in my research. I’ve been at it for the past 6 years, and it hasn’t gotten old yet!
Do you have any advice for young birders? If you know exactly where it is you want to go, awesome! If you don’t, you’re not alone. Work hard and figure out what it is that you really enjoy doing. There are so many ways to save the planet (and birds) and we’re all going to be in the thick of it for a while, so don’t worry about taking a few detours along the way.
Lorelle Sherman USFS Favorite bird: Purple Martin
What do you do? I’ve held a number of bird-related positions, including bird banding, habitat data collecting, occupancy surveying, and research on habitat associations, diet, and genomics. Currently, I’m working on a multifaceted long-term forest ecology project that includes research on White-headed Woodpecker habitat and Northern Spotted Owl prey.
How did you get to where you are? technician jobs. The networks that happened through these positions kept providing me with additional opportunities. Doing good work and making connections with people in the field you want to go into is crucial. I connected with professors while in undergrad to volunteer on bird research projects, which ultimately sent me all across the country and resulted in numerous references. This set me up to land a great bird-related job. I think building strong relationships and connections in this field is what got me into grad school and what landed me a great post-grad job. Do you have any advice for young birders? Don’t get discouraged. By being wrong. By not getting the job. By being the youngest person in the group. By being the only female or POC in the group. Keep going!
avian Field Technician
Thomas Meinzen Bird Conservancy of the Rockies Favorite bird: Common Nighthawk
What do you do? During the field season (April-July), I conduct bird point-count surveys in different locations, traveling each day between surveys. All bird species are recorded with a protocol known as IMBCR, or Integrated Monitoring of Bird Conservation Regions. I have completed these surveys in Wyoming and the Southern Great Plains (Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska); however, these field technician positions are also available across the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions. This position requires recognizing all the birds of your survey area by song/call and by sight, and being able to quickly and accurately record data and estimate distances. It also involves analyzing vegetation, a lot of travel, and sleeping out of a rental car for the two-month field season. My favorite part of this job is the variety of terrain, habitats, and bird species you encounter; I’ve seen hundreds of species across the field season and been able to camp and explore some amazing places, including areas otherwise inaccessible to birders.
How did you get where you are? The main prerequisite to this kind of position is just knowing your birds very well, so as a birder, you’re off to a good start. A specific degree is not required to be an avian field technician. Although some biology coursework is encouraged, as long as you can show your abilities of bird identification (especially aurally) for the survey region, and are capable in driving and living out of a vehicle for the field season, you can be well qualified for this position. I conducted bird surveys as an intern for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Osa Conservation in Costa Rica before applying for this position, which gave me experience and confidence in conducting point-count surveys. To find and apply for field jobs like this one and others, I recommend checking the Ornithology Exchange short-term bird jobs listserv: https://ornithologyexchange.org/jobs/board/short-term-positions/
Do you have any advice for young birders? Keep birding, and it will not only give you a unique passion, but also a unique set of skills. I never guessed that my first job out of college would be one that relied on my birding abilities—skills I had gained in my free time, not in my time studying.
Jessi Hallman Behnke U.S. Navy Favorite bird: ‘A’o or Newell’s shearwater (Puffinus newelli)
What do you do? As installation environmental program director (IEPD), I oversee environmental compliance, conservation and stewardship for a coastal military installation that is home to over a dozen threatened or endangered species (including 5 endemic Hawaiian waterbirds and Newell’s shearwater, Hawaiian petrel and band-rumped storm-petrel) and several important cultural sites. Some of my favorite aspects of the job are endangered species conservation, collaborating with STEM and other community programs to support local education, assisting and learning from distinguished cultural practitioners, and engaging with government and military officials to problem-solve environmental challenges.
Is there anything about your job that you DON'T like? Working in a military position means learning risk communication. All environmental risk must be translated into how an action supports or impacts the warfighter, and as with any government job, there is a level of bureaucracy that can affect timelines and organizational partnerships.
How did you get to where you are? My background as a seabird biologist and master’s degree in toxicology boosted me into my current job. Prior to working with the military, I was in the private sector writing habitat conservation plans for seabirds. I missed field work and conservation action with measurable benefits, so I took a pay cut to be a biologist on the military base managing several prior study species including Laysan albatross, wedge-tailed shearwaters and nene (Hawaiian goose). When my predecessor learned she would be leaving to accept a promotion, she requested my CV and recommended me as a candidate for direct hire. Without the graduate-level degree, I would not have been eligible for a GS-12 civil service position.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Do as much field work as you can afford! Work hard and do not compromise your values. Conservation matters, and comes in many forms.
Zoo Bird keeper
Charlie Rutkowski Oregon Zoo, Utica Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo Favorite bird: Which ever one I was trying to get to breed at the time.
What do you do? I take care of birds in large mixed species aviaries.
Is there anything about your job that you DON'T like? Forgetting to close ones mouth while looking up to count your birds.
How did you get where you are? BS degree in Biology.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Take photographs. It will help to identify birds and learn their natural history.
Tyler Hallmen Oregon State University, Swiss Ornithological Institute Favorite bird: Bobolink or Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher
What do you do? Much like a professor, I am involved in every aspect of the research projects I’m a part of. I plan projects, conduct fieldwork, supervise technicians, work with the database, analyze data, and write/publish peer-reviewed papers. I’ve also taught Systematics of Birds and Wildlife Ecology at Oregon State University. I spend the majority of my time 1) doing fieldwork, 2) writing R code to analyze data, 3) writing peer-reviewed articles, and 4) teaching. Fieldwork is one of the best parts of my job. Where other people can only go birding in their free time, for part of every year I go birding for work. Beyond that, I love the diversity of what I do. I love that part of the year I’m in the field and by the time I’m sick of 3 am mornings, I start working in the office. I love contributing to scientific research that helps with conservation and I love the problem solving that is involved with analyses. I also love the flexibility to contribute to outreach in the community. Finally, I love teaching and helping people to find their own passion for birds.
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Indeed there is. As a postdoc, I answer to my supervisor. This means that I do not have complete freedom in carrying out my own research. Further, although postdocs are paid much better than graduate students, they aren’t paid as well as professors. Finally, at major research institutions, there is a lot of pressure to publish peer-reviewed articles. This pressure can turn something I enjoy (writing and publishing articles) into something quite stressful. Although I love my job, my ultimate goal is to become a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college. I want to end up at an institution where the pressure to publish is reduced and excellence in teaching is emphasized.
How did you get to where you are? Academia is a long path and I believe my personal path is fairly typical. I’ll describe it below in a few stages.
Becoming interested in birds/wildlife: I was first introduced to birds and birding as a kid. My dad used to take me birding. He was the president of the local chapter of the Audubon Society where I grew up.
College: In undergrad I majored in Organismal Biology at Pitzer College and did research on birds and amphibians. Undergrad is a great time to learn a lot! You can take classes that interest you, volunteer to help with research being conducted at your institution, and find your passion. You can test the water and see if you like research.
Field Jobs: I spent over two years working as a field technician on avian ecology projects. This was a blast! I was able to learn all sorts of different research techniques including point counting, mist netting, nest searching, and hawkwatch counting. I was able to work in Argentina, Alberta, and the Grand Canyon. This is a time to find out what’s out there, develop ideas for research that interests you, make contacts and find people who will write more of your letters of rec!
Graduate School: I went to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale for an M.S. in Zoology where I studied the effects of climate change and pollution on amphibians. I then went to Oregon State University for a Ph.D. in Wildlife Science where I worked on the Oregon 2020 project. Most people do an M.S. then a Ph.D., which allows them to diversify their experience. It also allows them to go to a better institution for their Ph.D. than might have otherwise been possible as they’re more competitive. Some people skip the M.S. and go straight for their Ph.D. This is faster overall, so there are benefits to either decision. In graduate school you take some classes and if you’re interested you can teach, but primarily you conduct your own research. My main suggestion is to make sure that you find an advisor that you like.
Postdoctoral Positions: I am now finishing up a postdoc at OSU and am starting another very soon. Some people skip this step if they get another position their interested in right away. These positions are usually 1-2 years and are a stepping stone into the position in academia that you most want. They do allow you to experience a bit more. I’m certainly excited for the opportunity to live in Switzerland for a few years.
Do you have any advice for young birders? My advice is to figure out what you love and do it. Take a variety of different classes, take diverse jobs, experience what’s out there for yourself, and figure out what you want to do. You don’t need to go into academia if you like birds and birding, but if you try it, you may love it.
Ebird Project Leader
Jenna Curtis Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Favorite bird: Whichever species I most recently learned about! Right now, I think it's Sri Lanka Blue-Magpie.
Photo by Heather Wolf
What do you do? I coordinate outreach and engagement for eBird - one of the world's largest public science projects. I develop content for the eBird website, social media, and email newsletters and oversee the project's Help Center. I also assist our volunteer data quality reviewers. My favorite part of my job is making eBird fun and easy to use. I like developing educational resources so that eBird is more accessible to everyone!
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Answering emails can be a time-consuming activity in any profession. In my case, it leaves less time for other things like writing eBird articles and developing educational materials (even though I still love helping people!)
How do you get to where you are? I started college in an Interior Design program and switched to Biology my senior year. I have BAs in both Fine Arts and Biology. After college, I interned at the Klamath Bird Observatory. That internship was incredibly valuable because it gave me a combination of both field and data management experience. While working for KBO, I continued to apply to grad school. I was accepted into Doug Robinson's lab at Oregon State University. I received both my MS and PhD in Wildlife Science at OSU, analyzing changes in bird communities over time using historical data. I accepted my current position right out of grad school. I think a general path consists of the following elements but not necessarily in this order: learn to bird, go to college, do fieldwork, and learn to collect, manage, and analyze data (usually you'll get this last part in grad school but that's not the only way). It doesn't matter the exact path you take - start with a basic knowledge of birds and strong reading comprehension and communication skills; then seek opportunities to grow. The most important part of any path is that you put yourself out there, make connections, and keep moving forward. Do you have any advice for young birders?
First and foremost: It's all about the data. Every career birding activity, from banding to point counts to hawk watches, is designed to collect data. The more you understand and appreciate those data, the stronger you'll be as a job candidate. So look for opportunities to work with data! (The people who work with data usually make more money than the people who collect the data, too.)Take as many ecology, wildlife, and science courses as you can. The more knowledge you acquire, the more fascinating the world around you becomes.
It's never too early to start browsing job forums. Look at the jobs you want and take note of the degrees, courses, and experience they require. Work towards meeting those requirements through school and with extracurricular activities.
Whether it's for jobs, schools, or graduate programs - apply, apply, apply. Keep at it and don't get discouraged! (For grad school, I highly recommend you read a few papers of any potential advisor before you email them.)
Finally, learn to code. It doesn't matter what programming language you learn first, understanding how to write and read code is helpful for everything from website development to statistical analyses. Even in my job - which is focused on interacting with the public - I use the skills I learned with coding almost every day.
Jamie Cornelius Oregon State University Favorite bird: Red Crossbill
What do you do? I have the best job in the world! I am a biology professor, so my job is to excite students about biology (and perhaps teach them something along the way) and to learn more about birds through research. I get to be both creative and methodical at the same time. I get to talk about the most exciting scientific breakthroughs in the classroom and then try to make them in the great outdoors, and I get to work with people who constantly challenge and excite me.
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Of course there are aspects of my job that I don't enjoy as much. I spend a lot of time on administrative tasks. For example, I have to apply for many permits to study wild birds and submit many reports. I consider this the tax for getting to do what I do, and I understand that these processes are in place to protect our birds.
How did you get to where you are? I have enjoyed a somewhat long and winding path to my current position, and I've enjoyed the process as much as the end-point! I think this is important for those pursuing a faculty job in academia. It can take some time, but every step along the way was an adventure, and I love that I have lived in so many places and met so many amazing people over the years. A biology professor at University of Washington turned my attention from veterinary school to the wonderful world of research (thank you!), through some amazing discussions about hormones and behavior. I then earned my PhD at UC Davis, before moving to Germany for a post-doc position with the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology. After that, I was a part-time post-doc at UC Davis while also teaching at Cal State Monterey Bay before becoming a Fulbright Fellow at St. Petersburg State in Russia. My first faculty job was at Eastern Michigan University, where I spent four wonderful years in the biology department before moving to my dream position at Oregon State University in Integrative Biology. As I said before, the journey was as wonderful as the end-point, and I encourage students to view their path as a series of opportunities. You never know where the next opportunity might take you, and I have amazing memories from each of these experiences!
Do you have any advice for young birders? Be willing to take a risk. It can be scary - but the best things in my life have come from doing things that weren't in my original plan.
Kelsey McCune University of California Santa Barbara Favorite bird: California Scrub-Jay
What do you do? I study behavior in birds to understand how certain behavioral traits evolve and why those traits are important for our environment. Right now, I study a non-native bird that is originally from Central America, the great-tailed grackle, to understand the behavioral and cognitive traits that may have helped it invade new habitat in the US. I love seeing birds in nature, doing the things that benefit the environment and humans (eating bugs, dispersing seeds, singing).
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Getting funding in the US to do research is very competitive and difficult. If you get funding, it can be the bare minimum for the work you want to do, and then there is a lot of pressure to produce impressive results to get more funding. Also, who you know can be very important for getting jobs. So it is necessary to have a wide-ranging network!
How did you get to where you are? I got a bachelor's degree in Biology. Then I took two years off to do different field research internships around the US because I didn't know exactly what I was most interested in doing for a career. I got into a PhD program in Animal Behavior at UW. In this program, most students are paid for being Teaching Assistants, which means you have to be on campus helping teach undergraduate classes. But I wanted to study social behavior, personality and cognition in two species of jay that lived out of state. To have funding to do that, I applied for and received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. After my PhD, I got a postdoctoral research position (my current job) studying grackles with one of the people that had been on my dissertation committee.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Read! To understand whether you want to pursue a career studying birds, read some research papers on your favorite bird species. Also, consider what you are good at to figure out what direction you should take in a career with birds. If you are good with people, there are outreach-oriented jobs with bird conservation organizations. If you are passionate about preserving natural spaces to maintain bird habitat, then think about pursuing park ranger or environmental policy careers. If you enjoy reading research articles and thinking about evolutionary, ecological, or conservation questions related to birds, then consider graduate school for a career as a research scientist.
David Mellinger Oregon State University Favorite bird: Canyon Wren
What do you do? I do research, a bit of it involving birds. I work in acoustics, the science of sound, and I've been involved in studies of night flight calls -- sounds birds make while they're migrating overhead. It's really cool to be able to go out at night, listen to some sounds, and know what birds are flying by in the darkness overhead.
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Paperwork
How did you get to where you are? I went to college and majored in math, not really knowing what I wanted to do with it. A few years later, I went to graduate school and studied how our brain processes incoming sound waves to make sense of them, and I worked on computer models of that process. That turned out to be useful for recognizing bird calls (and whale calls, my main line of work) in sound recordings.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Get out and enjoy birds! It's always fun to see and hear birds. And ask your parents to help fight climate change, because it's hurting a lot of birds, people, and other things on Earth.
RESEARCH WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST
Joan Hagar USGS Favorite bird: Kestrel, Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes, Common Loon, Tree Swallow, Common Raven, Wilson's Warbler...
What do you do? Conduct applied research on the effects of land management, including restoration activities, on bird and wildlife habitat. I like being able to provide practical information that managers can use to effectively practice bird conservation.
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Government jobs involve navigating a lot of bureaucracy and administrivia --- not fun.
How did you get to where you are? I spent the early part of my career as an itinerant, seasonal field biologist. It gave me the opportunity to gain experience in a wide range of ecosystems, learn about diverse management issues, and develop a professional network. I drew on this early experience to make my graduate school experience more efficient and meaningful.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Never stop going outside and looking for birds, even if you end up working at a computer screen most every day.
Birding and Natural History Tour Leader
Rich Hoyer WINGS, Inc. Favorite bird: Calliope Hummingbird
What do you do? I take small groups to places good for birds and wildlife and try to make sure everyone sees everything and has a good time. There are a lot of details I'm leaving out, of course. I have to make a lot of decisions on the when and where; communicate with drivers, lodges, ground agents; some tours I drive and make picnic meals. I love sharing my knowledge and seeing people delight in the same things I do. Through my participants' reactions, I get to experience birds and other things like the first time I saw them myself.
Is there anything about your job that you don't like? Post-tour work – writing reports, summaries, accounting, finalizing the bird list, etc.
How did you get to where you are? I took several seasonal bio-tech jobs doing bird surveys for a few years after getting my B.S. and B.A. During those years I made a point of meeting people in the birding tour world and began writing the main companies (Field Guides, WINGS, V.E.N.T.) to let them know my interest. None were taking on new leaders at the time, but the owner of WINGS was the most personal and honest of all. I got lucky to land a job guiding on St. Paul Island for two summers, and while guiding there and also while living in Tucson in the winter between those two summers I got to know a couple of the WINGS people, and that personal relationship is what started my leading with them.
Do you have any advice for young birders? Keep a daily journal, at least writing down the birds you see each day. Be patient with birds and people. Don't shoot from the hip too often. Don't try too hard to impress people (it's all too obvious when you do). These are all things I did (and still sometimes do), and I seem to never learn.