Ornithologists might be bird-brained, but in the best possible way. Those
who choose careers as ornithologists have a passionate interest in our feathered
According to Ornithology: From Aristotle to the Present, by Erwin Stesemann,
"Birds are the best studied of any class in the animal kingdom. By now, the
number of bird species and, for that matter, the number and distribution of
the geographic races, have been all but completely determined."
If that's true, is there any more to be learned about birds? Why are so
many people still drawn to this lively science?
"There are lots of avenues an ornithologist can take," says Ron Rohrbaugh,
assistant director of education for the bird education program at the Cornell
Laboratory of Ornithology.
"You can study physiology and how birds react to pollution and the environment.
You can study habitat changes and how they affect individual birds or whole
populations. There's an educational component -- many ornithologists are professors."
Like many birders, Rohrbaugh developed his interest as a youngster. "From
an early age, I was always involved in nature," he says. "We had bird feeders
in our backyard and I loved to watch the birds."
John Rowlett had a similar love of birds at an early age. A native of Austin,
Texas, he began birding with his sister in 1952. The two of them were amazed
at the colorful birds they saw on a trip to Mexico in 1959.
Rowlett is an ornithologist who wears many hats. For much of his time,
he heads up "bird tours" worldwide, taking flocks of enthusiasts out to spot
some of the wonderful varieties of feathered creatures that exist.
While his knowledge of birds is extensive, Rowlett didn't go to university
to become an ornithologist. In fact, he studied literature. It was during
his time at graduate school that he began to make a career of guiding bird
Another busy birder is Mary Hennen, a research biologist at the Chicago
Academy of Sciences. Hennen looks after the academy's huge research collection
of 200,000 specimens, including 12,000 birds and 2,500 egg sets.
A collection of old eggshells might sound like sort of a silly thing to
keep. But they do serve an important function.
During the 1960s, for example, the peregrine falcon was on the verge of
extinction. Researchers trying to find out why the bird population was in
such poor shape in the wild were able to test the thickness of peregrine eggshells
dating back many decades.
It was discovered that the modern shells were too thin for the developing
chicks to survive, a terrible result of pesticide pollution in the environment.
Thanks to the collection of eggshells, the mystery could be solved and a solution
While half of Hennen's time is taken up with the daunting task of computerizing
the academy's huge collection, the other half is spent working to restore
habitat for birds, such as the peregrine and the bluebird.
Robert Zink is a former vice-president of the American Ornithologists'
Union, the largest professional birder organization in the world. He's also
an associate professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, curator
of birds at the J.F. Bell Museum of Natural History and researcher on the
evolutionary history of birds.
"I use genetic tools," says Zink. "I study the DNA of modern birds to find
the interconnectedness into the evolution of all birds."
Birds of a feather flock together, and Zink says his current career can
certainly be traced back to a boyhood interest in birds and bird watching.
This career may involve spending a lot of time outdoors. Movement within
this kind of environment may be difficult for people with special mobility
needs. However, if you do most of your work in a lab or museum, it may be
possible to overcome this limitation.