“Ornithology is the scientific study of birds. Like other natural science subjects, it usually involves answering questions about the specific subject,” explains Doug Harebottle. An ornithologist working in the Avian Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. “Questions related to the field of ornithology can include: why are bird populations declining? How does a Swallow manage to fly 15 000 km from London to Johannesburg and return to the same nest-site every year? Or, what makes a penguin swim so well underwater?”
From a very young age, Doug has had a keen interest in wildlife and nature. After being introduced to the topic of birds when he was in high school (during a meeting at a wildlife club) and after speaking to his parents, a career guidance counsellor, and an experienced birder at a local bird club, he became even more interested in birds and decided that he wanted to make this (or at least nature conservation) his career.
An ornithologist, also known as a bird researcher or bird biologist, earns in the region of R150 000 per annum – but this varies depending on position. An academic ornithologist (lecturer or professor) usually earns more than a field or general ornithologist who works at, for example, provincial or NGO level.
“Ornithologists are usually involved in particular studies of birds with the aim of developing a better understanding of the role of birds in the environment, and contributing to their conservation. Some of the fields of study include nesting and breeding behaviour; looking at the naming and ordering of different species; catching and marking birds to study their migration patterns and monitoring their population numbers.”
Pros and cons
“The pros of this job are that you get to work outdoors quite a lot, you contribute to the long-term conservation of birds, and you are always discovering new facts about certain species. The cons are that you may have to travel frequently, and the pay is generally not very good.”
Required studies and experience
“There are two study routes that one can follow to become an ornithologist – one is to study for a BSc degree at a university, and the other is to study for a nature conservation diploma at a Technikon. There are no specific ornithological courses or degrees offered in South Africa, therefore you would have to do a general biology/zoology degree or a nature conservation diploma before being able to specialise in birds or bird-related research. The BSc degree is a three-year course which should then be followed by a one-year BSc (Hons) degree, and a two- to three-year Master of Science (MSc) degree where