Advice for Young Birders

by Jennie Duberstein

I get asked a lot for recommendations for young birders interested in working with birds. Where should I go to school? What should I study? How do I prepare myself for a career in bird conservation? Most young birders are already on a great track. They involve themselves with local conservation or birding groups. They  have volunteer experience leading trips or working on research projects. By and large I’m incredibly impressed by how involved young birders already are in bird conservation efforts.

But being involved as a volunteer high school student is different than embarking on a full-fledged career. Below I share a few thoughts and suggestions about how young birders can best prepare.

Thinking about the future can feel like preparing for battle. Below are some ideas and suggestions to arm yourself. (The author in chain mail at Coronado National Memorial, Hereford, Arizona). Photo by Christopher Bentley

Thinking about the future can feel like preparing for battle. Below are some ideas and suggestions to arm yourself. (The author in chain mail at Coronado National Memorial, Hereford, Arizona). Photo by Christopher Bentley

College
Are you planning on going to college? If so, HUZZAH! Carry on! If not, please consider it. Can you have a successful career without a college diploma? Of course. Will it be much easier with one? Of course.

Majoring in biology, zoology, or something similar will give you a strong foundation for a career in ornithology. As an undergrad, though, you’ll find that there aren’t options to major in ornithology. In fact, I’d encourage you to NOT specialize and focus in on birds too specifically as an undergrad. College is the best opportunity you will have to try things out and see what interests you. Take an ornithology class, of course. Stay as involved in the world of birding as you want. But learn about mammals, plants, fish, conservation, etc. You’ll need a good foundational understanding of how ecosystems work if you want to work in bird conservation. Birds don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do people. Say you major in zoology. If anthropology or English or photography piques your interest, take those classes, too.

No one ever said, “Bugger! I wish I wasn’t so well-rounded!”

Even if you don’t study biology or something similar, you can still have a successful career in ornithology. Steve Howell studied geography in college. Jon Dunn studied history. I’m not trying to discourage you from majoring in zoology or biology. I just want to emphasize my belief that your undergraduate career is when you should explore your interests. (Disclaimer: Within reason, of course. I don’t mean that you should take eight years to graduate–let’s be clear!) Your college years serve as the foundation for everything that comes next in your life. Take every opportunity to make it a broad, strong foundation.

It seems like every young birder I talk to these days has visions of the “C” university dancing in his/her head–Cornell. It is a wonderful school. The Lab of Ornithology is like nothing else, with a ton of amazing opportunities for undergrads. But you can get a solid education and gain the skills and knowledge necessary for a career in ornithology at other schools, too. Find a school and program that best fits YOUR needs and interests. Keep your pocketbook in mind, too–don’t go into a bazillion dollars of student loan debt just to go to an expensive college. All three of my degrees are from state universities and I mostly turned out okay.

Where did I go to school? What did I study? My undergraduate degree is from Virginia Tech, in wildlife biology. I got to do some hands-on bird work in conjunction with my ornithology class. I also learned small mammal trapping, plant and tree identification, environmental interpretation/education, and recreation management. I took sociology classes, played club volleyball, and sang with a jazz ensemble. In short, I learned lots of other things that are not bird-focused, but that have been just as important in my career. My masters and PhD are both from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona, where I studied the social aspects of conservation. My masters thesis looked at how the U.S. Forest Service used the Internet as a public participation tool. My PhD examined social networks of small-scale fishermen in northern Mexico and how that affected conservation. I didn’t specifically study birds in college. I definitely didn’t study birds in grad school. But I work with birds for a living. The field jobs I had during college were bird-focused. My graduate work had applicability beyond the specific things I studied. Those skills and experiences, combined with a solid education, helped me get where I am today.

What school should I choose?
There are a lot of options out there. Here are a few things to ask yourself:

  • In what environment do you learn best? Do you like small, personal classes with lots of one-on-one interaction with your professor? Then a large state school is perhaps not for you. Do you do well on your own and enjoy a certain feeling of anonymity? Then a freshman biology class with 700 other students might work fine for you. It isn’t a question or large or small being better or worse. It is a question of which is better for YOU.
  • What else do you like, besides birds? Does the college/university offer opportunities to learn more or involve yourself in that? If not, it might be wise to keep looking. For example, do you love to play basketball? (Is there a team you can play on?) Do you play the piano? (Can you take piano lessons?) Are you a history buff? (Does the school have a good history department?) Do you love to paint? (Can you take art courses?) College should be about exploring your interests (again, within reason. I’m a firm believer in the ability to graduate in four years). Graduate school is the time for focusing in. Stay broad. Try new things, and by the time you graduate you will have more of an idea where your interests lie and where you want to go next.
  • Does the school put a priority on teaching, or on research? (In my opinion you want to find a place that does both, but that emphasizes teaching.)
  • Does the school offer good opportunities for undergrads to get involved in research? Not having this isn’t a deal breaker, because there are always ways to get involved in research, but having it is a huge plus. Volunteering and getting hands-on experience as an undergrad is one of the most important things you can do. There will be lots of people applying for jobs when you graduate, and having skills and experience will help you stand out. You’ll also begin to develop a list of folks who will be references for you as you apply for jobs.

And here are a few other things to consider:

  • Travel. If you have the opportunity to do a semester abroad, do it. The fact that I did not is perhaps my only regret from college.
  • Learn a foreign language. Spanish is excessively useful.
  • Learn to write well. I can’t stress this enough.
  • Learn to communicate. Hone your skills in sharing complex ideas without the use of complex terms.
  • Get involved. Join clubs, go to meetings, and get to know your  fellow students.
  • Network. When I was a freshman at Virginia Tech, lo these many years ago, I took Wildlife Management from Dr. Robert Giles. On the first day class Dr. Giles passed around a piece of paper and had us all write our names, home addresses, and phone numbers. (This was before the days of email–can you imagine?) The following week he handed a typed copy out to everyone in the class. He told us about the importance of networking, and how we now had the beginning of our professional network. “Keep in touch with each other,” he told us. “This is the beginning of your professional network.” He was right.
Shaking hands with the President of the University of Arizona at commencement.

The author shaking hands with the President of the University of Arizona at commencement. December 2009.

This brings me to my second point…

Experience
High school and college are wonderful times to gain experience. When you are young and a novelty, people will go out of their way to create opportunities for you. Milk this for every last drop. Don’t be shy. People want to help young birders. People LOVE to help young birders. It makes them feel good. Make sure they know who you are, what you want to do, and how they can help you. If there is a program that interests you, get in touch with whoever is in charge and let them know you’d like to volunteer. Ask if they have internships. It would surprise me if they didn’t scramble to find a way to bring a motivated high school student on board.

By gaining skills and experience in high school, you’ll be way ahead of the game when it comes to finding employment. Here are my three favorite resources for finding wildlife/environmental-related employment:

The author with a Loggerhead Shrike in Brighton, Colorado. Photo by Scott Hutchings

The author with a Loggerhead Shrike early in her career (early in the author’s career, not the shrike’s). Photo by Scott Hutchings

Which brings me to my third point…

Career Paths
So birds fascinate you and you want them to be an important part of your life? Having an ornithology-related career is one way this can happen. Involvement with ornithology, birding, and conservation can also be part of your life, but not your day job. Let me explain.

If you want a career in ornithology or the world of birds and birding, there are lots of ways you can go.

  • Academia (i.e., college professor or instructor)
  • Non-profit (i.e., work for a bird observatory, etc.)
  • Government (i.e., work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, a state Fish and Game agency, city government, etc.)
  • Independent consultant/contractor (get hired by people for specific jobs).
  • Tour guide (have your own independent business, work as a leader for an established bird tour company)
  • Retail (i.e., wild bird store, optics company representative)

That isn’t an exhaustive list. Some of these paths are easier than others. I can tell you lots more about any of these options, as well as others. Just ask below in the comments or email me if you have questions.

If you go the ornithologist route, you’ll spend at least a few years working as a seasonal field biologist in the beginning. This is a great way to travel, see different parts of the world, make connections, and gain experience. You won’t get rich, but you’ll have some amazing experiences and will likely meet people who you’ll know for many years to come.

You’ll be reading more about my career path in an upcoming interview in Birding magazine, but I worked as a naturalist, field biologist, environmental educator, and even a high school biology teacher before settling into my current job as Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Sonoran Joint Venture (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). As with college, getting broad work experience when you are young can be a very good thing. And just because you start out doing one thing doesn’t mean you’ll do it for the rest of your life.

Me (in front) with the staff at the YMCA Willson Outdoor Center in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Working as a naturalist for their outdoor education program and directing their summer "ranch" camp was my first job out of college.

Me (in front) with the staff at the YMCA Willson Outdoor Center in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Working as a naturalist for their outdoor education program and directing their summer “ranch” camp was my first job out of college.

Careers in Other Things
I know quite a few people who have made important contributions to ornithology, bird conservation, and birding, but they are not ornithologists by trade. Instead, they have careers in other fields (doctors, teachers, lawyers, salespeople, etc.) and bird-related work is what they do in their free time. As I mentioned above, you aren’t going to get rich in most bird related jobs. Having a career that you enjoy and pays you enough to allow you to also do the bird-related things you love is a viable alternative. I know folks who are master banders, but do it as volunteers. A lot of the work that I do with young birders is volunteer. Fellow Leica Birding Team member Bill Schmoker is a world-class photographer and tour leader. He teaches middle school earth science as his career. This is not to discourage you from making ornithology the focus of your career. It is just to point out that there are other ways to connect and make important contributions.

What Do You Think?
What advice would you, gentle blog readers, give to a young birder wanting to embark on a career in conservation? More broadly, how can we provide more and better opportunities to prepare them? Or are you a young birder with specific questions? Share and ask in the comments below.