Ornithologist Careers

How to become an ornithologist

What does an ornithologist do?

Ornithologists specialise in the study of birds and could be involved in the following areas of work:

  • fieldwork
  • conservation and habitat management
  • supervision and instruction
  • consultancy and education.

Fieldwork ornithologists carry out scientific research, conduct surveys and monitor bird species in a particular habitat. During research, they track bird movements and biological processes; and collect, analyse and evaluate data.

Ornithologists can also be employed as wardens or officers at nature reserves, ringing stations or observatories. They can work for wildlife trusts, private organisations, regional park authorities or on conservation schemes.

Their wider role may include visitor management, fund raising and management planning.


What's the working environment like for an ornithologist?

Working hours are typically 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday, possibly with some extra hours. Although work is office based, at least half of the time is spent outdoors in all weather conditions. Self-employment and freelance work are sometimes possible. Career breaks, part-time work and job-sharing may also be available.

At bird observatories, the work is more variable because of migration cycles and does not follow office hours. As a result, wardens are usually on annual contracts but assistant wardens are likely to be on 10- month contracts.

The work is physically active and ornithologists may have to travel to specific sites either in a vehicle or on foot.

Ornithologists sometimes work in remote and isolated locations. In the UK, it is common to work on an offshore island.


What does it take to become an ornithologist?

To be an ornithologist you should:

  • have an interest in observing and identifying birds
  • have a meticulous and methodical approach
  • be enthusiastic about wildlife conservation
  • have good analytical and mathematical skills
  • be able to work alone or as part of a team
  • be able to draft clear and effective reports
  • have good interpersonal skills
  • have confidence and leadership skills
  • be computer literate.

To gain entry into this field you will normally need an HND, foundation degree, degree or postgraduate degree in a related subject. This can range from biology to environmental science or even zoology.

In terms of other qualifications you will need a British Trust for Ornithology ringing permit and some experience in order to become a bird watcher. 

Ornithologist career opportunities

There are very few permanent research posts and competition is high when they do arise. Most research officers start their careers on a temporary contract as a research student working on a short-term study or project with organisations such as the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology, or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Successful students may progress into permanent jobs.

Those who lack a scientific background but have an enthusiastic interest in ornithology may work either as a warden, education/information officer or in administration. Experience and relevant qualifications in teaching, journalism or administration would be required for posts in education/information or administrative work.

At bird observatories, there are usually annual vacancies for assistant wardens but wardens posts tend not to become available very often.

There may be opportunities for ornithologists to work at other locations outside of the UK.


Further information

If you would like to learn more about bcoming an ornithologist that does not appear on Hotcourses, further information can be found below.

British Trust For Ornithology (BTO)
The Nunnery
IP24 2PU
Tel: 01842 750050

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Human Resources Department
The Lodge
SG19 2DL
Tel: 01767 680551

Bird Observatories Council
Mr P Howlett
c/o Dept. of BioSyB
National Museums and Galleries of Wales
CF10 3NP
Tel: 029 2057 3233

British Ornithologists’ Union
Department of Zoology
University of Oxford
South Parks Road
Tel: 01865 281842



Similar careers