Our human relationship and fascination with birds has been in evidence since the Stone Age, with drawings and bones dated back to that time depicting them as not just a source of food, but also an important part of these early civilizations' mythology. Ornithology, the study of birds, has contributed to the overarching studies and subsequent theories and concepts of ecology, geography and even anthropology. |
What is Ornithology?
Ornithology is a branch of zoology. This vast and diverse field is defined as "the scientific study of birds" – with ornithologists studying every aspect of avian life. New technology means that researchers are now unlocking many of the secrets of avian behaviour, breeding, nesting, migrating and habitats. Where ornithology differs from many other sciences, however, is that non-professionals can and do make vital and meaningful contributions in the gathering of data – including key studies in behaviour, habitat distribution, population and conservation.
What Do Ornithologists Study?
The key aspects studied within the framework of ornithology are:
• Anatomy • Identification of species • Neurobiology • Physiology • Behaviour and biodiversity • General biological principles • Conceptual understanding of ecology and evolutionary hypotheses • Data gathering and interpretation practices
Within the discipline there are also many branches in which ornithologists specialise. Some focus on environment and habitat, others on their diet and feeding habits, others on the history of species' evolution and their place in the future, and others on the anatomy and physiology of individual species.
This specialisation can be broadly broken down into three fields, but it's also common for each strand to collaborate on data analysis.
Laboratory research: This most often involves the analysis of live specimens to gain insight into avian intelligence and behaviours. It can also involve analysing field data, collating results of studies and medical research.
Field research: These professionals work around the world in avian habitats undertaking population counts, capturing images, audio recordings and video footage, and capturing live specimens for research purposes.
Collection: These ornithologists specialise in the capture or collection of live and dead specimens and the analysis to further research their DNA, physiology and anatomy. In the nineteenth century, this was done almost exclusively on deceased specimens – in fact, it was Charles Darwin's entire original job description. Fortunately for history, this was the time he also began making valuable observations on behaviour, feeding and breeding, which led to his subsequent theories on natural selection and evolution.
Bird Watching Holidays – Ornithology for the Amateur
Today's professionally-organised bird watching holidays bring the field within the reach of amateur wildlife watchers. Led by naturalists and ornithologists, the best bird watching holidays afford participants access to a level of expertise that enables them the opportunity to expand their own knowledge of a host of exotic and endemic species.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird watching holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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