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Bird Watching: How to Turn Your Hobby into a Career

Birds are fascinating creatures to observe. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, 45 million people are involved in the hobby of bird watching.

“If you are a passionate bird watcher, you may be interested to know that you can turn that hobby into a career with the right training.” – Associate Professor Alyson McKnight, Wildlife & Fisheries Management at Unity College

Here’s what you need to know about moving from backyard bird watcher to professional bird watcher.

What Is Bird Watching?

Bird watching, or birding as it is known by the pros, is a popular hobby that involves observing birds in their natural habitats. True bird watchers do more than just watch birds. They track migration patterns, identify habitats, and even take note of reproductive habits to see new populations growing and thriving.

Bird watching is growing in popularity because it is accessible to anyone. While there is equipment that can make the hobby more enjoyable, all you need to get started are your own eyes. Simply step outside and start observing the birds in your area.

Many bird watchers will use a field guide to learn more about the habits and migration patterns of the birds in their areas. They may put items in their yards, like bird feeders and birdbaths, to entice avian friends to come and visit. As they learn more about birds and start expanding their hobby, bird watchers often acquire binoculars and head out to forest preserves and other natural outdoor areas to spot birds that won’t come to their backyards.

Bird watching is a common and popular hobby, but what many people don’t know is the fact that it can be a career, as well. With the right equipment and education, it is possible to go from simple bird watching to an exciting career in ornithology.

The Market for Bird Watching

So, what does ornithology mean? Ornithology is the scientific study of birds, and, as such, it is an important branch of zoology because the health and well-being of bird populations shows quite a bit about the health and well-being of the environment as a whole.

Types of Professionals who Work in Bird Watching

Within the field of ornithology, you can find a number of career opportunities that put your passion for bird watching to work. Scientists and conservationists alike study the migration and health of birds. The field also needs educators and even app developers who are passionate about birding to help create tools and educate others about the field.

Working as a Bird Watcher 

If you are fortunate enough to get a career as a bird watcher, what would your daily work look like? What tasks would you complete in order to get paid to watch birds?

1. The Equipment

First, professional birders need to have the right equipment. This often involves binoculars and a camera with a powerful zoom lens. Documenting birds is easier if you can photograph them, but it’s often not possible to get close to them without startling them.

Second, you will need a computer or tablet to take in the field with you. Or use a paper notebook to record notes and transfer them to a digital format at home. Many birders will use an app to track migration patterns and nesting habits.

Otherwise, your best piece of equipment is your own observational skill.

2. The Schedule

Birds are most active in the morning hours. This means a professional bird watcher needs to be willing to get up early to make observations. Birds also grow active towards sundown. They tend to be dormant or minimally active in the middle parts of the day.

3. The Workplace

As a bird watcher, you will spend a lot of your time outdoors. Observing birds needs to happen in their habitats, and this can include natural areas, backyards, parks, and even the city. While there may be some office time when you record and analyze your findings, your workplace is going to be out in nature for much of the week.

How Much Do Bird Watchers Make? 

Turning a hobby into a career can feel frightening because it’s hard to see the value of your hobby as a paid profession. Yet ornithologists can make a good salary by sharing their love of birds with others. Unfortunately, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not record data specifically for bird watchers, but they do record data about zoologists and wildlife biologists, and ornithologists would fall into this larger category. According to the BLS, these professionals earned an average of $63,270 a year as of 2019. Those in the highest 10 percent of the field earned $101,780 a year, on average, so high-paying positions are definitely out there.

How Do I Become a Bird Watcher?

If you are passionate about birds, a career as a bird watcher is a great way to put it to use, but you will need some training. It’s not enough to simply be a backyard bird watcher learning on your own, not if you want to get paid for your efforts. You need scientific and environmental knowledge to enter this career path.

The BS in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology degree at Unity College is a good starting point. This immersive degree teaches about all types of wildlife science, including the habits and activities of birds. It has a heavy focus on resource management, which is critical to the health and well-being of the bird population and prepares you to address the environmental problems that are affecting the birds in your community.

Unity College offers the BS in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology degree as a hybrid program with eight start dates per year. This makes it an effective option for busy adults who may not have time to take on an on-campus program fully. Hybrid students are able to design academic experiences to fit their learning lifestyles and preferences. Students have the option to use online and in-person classroom experiences as they best fit their own schedules and needs. And each student has a Hybrid Learning Coach that helps them make these choices.

This particular degree program is designed around hands-on experiences. Students spend time in the field exploring forests, lakes, and ocean environments and the animals that live in them. This field experience is just as valuable as the classroom experiences, helping you hone your observational, reporting, and analytical skills.

This program also has a liberal arts foundation, which gives students the background knowledge and training to effectively problem-solve when working with bird populations. After graduation, you will be well-qualified to work as a wildlife professional, including ornithology.

After graduating with your degree from Unity College, students can apply for roles in the field. The Ornithology Exchange posts jobs in the field, and this can be a good starting point to find a position. Both academic and research positions are common, giving you different avenues to put your bird-watching skills to the test.

Learning how to bird watch is just the first step in this process. With the right degree, you can turn that hobby into a rewarding career. If you are interested in learning more about the Hybrid Learning Wildlife and Fisheries programs offered at Unity College, contact us today.