Ornithology is a branch of zoology that concerns the study of birds.
The word "ornithology" derives from the ancient Greek ὄρνις
ornis ("bird") and λόγος logos ("rationale" or "explanation").
Several aspects of ornithology differ from related disciplines, due
partly to the high visibility and the aesthetic appeal of birds.
Most marked among these is the extent of studies undertaken by
amateurs working within the parameters of strict scientific
The science of ornithology has a long history and studies on birds
have helped develop several key concepts in evolution, behaviour and
ecology such as the definition of species, the process of speciation,
instinct, learning, ecological niches, guilds, island biogeography,
phylogeography and conservation. While early ornithology was
principally concerned with descriptions and distributions of species,
ornithologists today seek answers to very specific questions, often
using birds as models to test hypotheses or predictions based on
theories. Most modern biological theories apply across taxonomic
groups and the number of professional scientists who identify
themselves as "ornithologists" has therefore declined. A wide range
of tools and techniques are used in ornithology, both inside the
laboratory and out in the field, and innovations are constantly
2.1 Early knowledge and study
2.2 Scientific studies
2.3 Rise to popularity
3.2 In the field
3.3 In the laboratory
3.4 Collaborative studies
5 See also
7 Additional sources
8 External links
The origins of the word ornithology come from the Greek ornithologos
and late 17th-century Latin ornithologia meaning "bird science".
See also: Timeline of ornithology
The history of ornithology largely reflects the trends in the history
of biology, as well as many other scientific disciplines, including
ecology, anatomy, physiology, paleontology, and more recently
molecular biology. Trends include the move from mere descriptions to
the identification of patterns, and thus towards elucidating the
processes that produce these patterns.
Early knowledge and study
Belon's comparison of birds and humans in his Book of Birds, 1555
Humans have had an observational relationship with birds since
prehistory, with some stone age drawings being amongst the oldest
indications of an interest in birds.
Birds were perhaps important
as a food source, and bones of as many as 80 species have been found
in excavations of early
Stone Age settlements.
seabird remains have also been found in shell mounds on the island of
Oronsay off the coast of Scotland.
Cultures around the world have rich vocabularies related to birds.
Traditional bird names are often based on detailed knowledge of the
behaviour, with many names being onomatopoeic, many still in use.
Traditional knowledge may also involve the use of birds in folk
medicine and knowledge of these practices are passed on through
oral traditions (see ethno-ornithology). Hunting of wild birds
as well as their domestication would have required considerable
knowledge of their habits.
Poultry farming and falconry were practised
from early times in many parts of the world. Artificial incubation of
poultry was practised in China around 246 BC and around at least 400
BC in Egypt. The Egyptians also made use of birds in their
hieroglyphic scripts, many of which, though stylized, are still
identifiable to species.
Early written records provide valuable information on the past
distributions of species. For instance
Xenophon records the abundance
of the ostrich in
Assyria (Anabasis, i. 5); this subspecies from Asia
minor is extinct and all extant ostrich races are today restricted to
Africa. Other old writings such as the
Vedas (1500–800 BC)
demonstrate the careful observation of avian life histories and
includes the earliest reference to the habit of brood parasitism by
Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopacea). Like writing, the early art
of China, Japan, Persia and India also demonstrate knowledge, with
examples of scientifically accurate bird illustrations.
Aristotle in 350 BC in his Historia Animalium noted the habit of
bird migration, moulting, egg laying and life spans, as well as
compiling a list of 170 different bird species. However, he also
introduced and propagated several myths, such as the idea that
swallows hibernated in winter, although he noted that cranes migrated
from the steppes of
Scythia to the marshes at the headwaters of the
Nile. The idea of swallow hibernation became so well established that,
even as late as in 1878,
Elliott Coues could list as many as 182
contemporary publications dealing with the hibernation of swallows and
little published evidence to contradict the theory. Similar
misconceptions existed regarding the breeding of barnacle geese. Their
nests had not been seen and it was believed that they grew by
transformations of goose barnacles, an idea that became prevalent from
around the 11th century and noted by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis
(Gerald of Wales) in
Topographia Hiberniae (1187). Around 77 AD,
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder described birds, among other creatures, in his
The origins of falconry have been traced to
Mesopotamia and the
earliest record comes from the reign of Sargon II (722–705 BC).
Falconry made its entry to Europe only after AD 400, brought in from
the East after invasions by the Huns and Allans. Frederick II of
Hohenstaufen (1194–1250) learned about Arabian falconry during wars
in the region and obtained an Arabic treatise on falconry by Moamyn.
He had this work translated into Latin and also conducted experiments
on birds in his menagerie. By sealing the eyes of vultures and placing
food nearby, he concluded that they found food by sight, and not by
smell. He also developed methods to keep and train falcons. The
studies that he undertook over nearly 30 years, were published in 1240
as De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds),
considered one of the earliest studies on bird behaviour, and the
first work known to include illustrations of birds.
Several early German and French scholars compiled old works and
conducted new research on birds. These included
Guillaume Rondelet who
described his observations in the Mediterranean and
Pierre Belon who
described the fish and birds that he had seen in France and the
Levant. Belon's Book of
Birds (1555) is a folio volume with
descriptions of some two hundred species. His comparison of the
skeleton of humans and birds is considered as a landmark in
Volcher Coiter (1534–1576), a Dutch
anatomist made detailed studies of the internal structures of birds
and produced a classification of birds, De Differentiis Avium (around
1572), that was based on structure and habits.
Konrad Gesner wrote
the Vogelbuch and Icones avium omnium around 1557. Like Gesner, Ulisse
Aldrovandi, an encyclopedic naturalist began a 14-volume natural
history with three volumes on birds, entitled ornithologiae hoc est de
avibus historiae libri XII which was published from 1599 to 1603.
Aldrovandi showed great interest in plants and animals and his work
included 3000 drawings of fruits, flowers, plants and animals,
published in 363 volumes. His
Ornithology alone covers 2000 pages and
included such aspects as the chicken and poultry techniques. He used a
number of traits including behaviour, particularly bathing and
dusting, to classify bird groups.
Cover of Ulisse Aldrovandi's Ornithology, 1599
Antonio Valli da Todi, who wrote on aviculture in 1601, knew the
connections between territory and song
William Turner's Historia Avium ("History of Birds"), published at
Cologne in 1544, was an early ornithological work from England. He
noted the commonness of kites in English cities where they snatched
food out of the hands of children. He included folk beliefs such as
those of anglers. Anglers believed that the osprey emptied their
fishponds and would kill them, mixing the flesh of the osprey into
their fish bait. Turner's work reflected the violent times that he
lived in and stands in contrast to later works such as Gilbert White's
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne that were written in a
In the 17th century
Francis Willughby (1635–1672) and John Ray
(1627–1705) came up with the first major system of bird
classification that was based on function and morphology rather than
on form or behaviour. Willughby's Ornithologiae libri tres (1676)
John Ray is sometimes considered to mark the beginning of
scientific ornithology. Ray also worked on Ornithologia which was
published posthumously in 1713 as Synopsis methodica avium et
piscium. The earliest list of British birds, Pinax Rerum
Naturalium Britannicarum was written by
Christopher Merrett in 1667,
but authors such as
John Ray considered it of little value. Ray
did however, value the expertise of the naturalist Sir Thomas Browne
(1605–82) who, not only answered his queries on ornithological
identification and nomenclature, but also those of Willoughby and
Merrett in letter correspondence. Browne himself in his lifetime kept
an eagle, owl, cormorant, bittern and ostrich, penned a tract on
falconry, and introduced the words incubation and oviparous into the
An Experiment on a
Bird in the Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
Towards the late 18th century,
Mathurin Jacques Brisson
Mathurin Jacques Brisson (1723–1806)
and Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) began new works on birds. Brisson
produced a six-volume work Ornithologie in 1760 and Buffon's included
nine volumes (volumes 16–24) on birds Histoire naturelle des oiseaux
(1770–1785) in his work on science Histoire naturelle générale et
particulière (1749–1804). Jacob Temminck sponsored François Le
Vaillant [1753–1824] to collect bird specimens in Southern Africa
and Le Vaillant's six-volume Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d'Afrique
(1796–1808) included many non-African birds. His other bird books
produced in collaboration with the artist Barraband are considered
among the most valuable illustrated guides ever produced. Louis Jean
Pierre Vieillot (1748–1831) spent ten years studying North American
birds and wrote the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l'Amerique
septentrionale (1807–1808?). Vieillot pioneered in the use of
life-histories and habits in classification. Alexander Wilson
composed a nine-volume work, American Ornithology, published
1808-14—the first such record of North American birds, significantly
predating Audubon. In the early 19th century,
Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark studied
and identified many birds in the western United States. John James
Audubon, born in 1785, observed and painted birds in France and later
Mississippi valleys. From 1827 to 1838, Audubon
Birds of America, which was engraved by Robert Havell,
Sr. and his son Robert Havell, Jr.. Containing 435 engravings, it is
often regarded as the greatest ornithological work in history.
Early bird study focused on collectibles such as eggs and nests
The emergence of ornithology as a scientific discipline began in the
18th century when
Mark Catesby published his two-volume Natural
History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, a landmark work
which included 220 hand-painted engravings and was the basis for many
of the species
Carl Linnaeus described in the 1758 Systema Naturae.
Linnaeus' work revolutionised bird taxonomy by assigning every species
a binomial name, categorising them into different genera. However, it
was not until the Victorian era—with the concept of natural history,
and the collection of natural objects such as bird eggs and
skins—that ornithology emerged as a specialised science.
This specialization led to the formation in Britain of the British
Ornithologists' Union in 1858. In 1859 the members founded its journal
The Ibis. The sudden spurt in ornithology was also due in part to
colonialism. A hundred years later, in 1959, R. E. Moreau noted that
ornithology in this period was preoccupied with the geographical
distributions of various species of birds.
No doubt the preoccupation with widely extended geographical
ornithology, was fostered by the immensity of the areas over which
British rule or influence stretched during the 19th century and for
some time afterwards.
The bird collectors of the Victorian era observed the variations in
bird forms and habits across geographic regions, noting local
specialization and variation in widespread species. The collections of
museums and private collectors grew with contributions from various
parts of the world. The naming of species with binomials and the
organization of birds into groups based on their similarities became
the main work of museum specialists. The variations in widespread
birds across geographical region caused the introduction of trinomial
Kaup's classification of the crow family
The search for patterns in the variations of birds was attempted by
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854), his student
Johann Baptist von Spix
Johann Baptist von Spix (1781–1826) and several others believed that
there was a hidden and innate mathematical order in the forms of
birds. They believed that there was a "natural" classification that
was superior to "artificial" ones. A particularly popular idea was the
Quinarian system popularised by
Nicholas Aylward Vigors
Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1785–1840),
William Sharp Macleay
William Sharp Macleay (1792–1865), William Swainson and others. The
idea was that nature followed a "rule of five" with five groups nested
hierarchically. Some had attempted a rule of four, but Johann Jakob
Kaup (1803–1873) insisted that the number five was special noting
that other natural entities such as the senses also came in fives. He
followed this idea and demonstrated his view of the order within the
crow family. Where he failed to find 5 genera, he left a blank
insisting that a new genus would found to fill these gaps. These ideas
were replaced by more complex "maps" of affinities in works by Hugh
Edwin Strickland and Alfred Russel Wallace. A major advance
was made by
Max Fürbringer in 1888 who established a comprehensive
phylogeny of birds based on anatomy, morphology, distribution and
biology. This was developed further by
Hans Gadow and others.
Galapagos finches were especially influential in the development
of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. His contemporary Alfred
Russel Wallace also noted these variations and the geographical
separations between different forms leading to the study of
biogeography. Wallace was influenced by the work of Philip Lutley
Sclater on the distribution patterns of birds.
Quinarian system of bird classification by Swainson
For Darwin, the problem was how species arose from a common ancestor,
but he did not attempt to find rules for delineation of species. The
species problem was tackled by the ornithologist Ernst Mayr. Mayr was
able to demonstrate that geographical isolation and the accumulation
of genetic differences led to the splitting of species.
Early ornithologists were preoccupied with matters of species
identification. Only systematics counted as true science and field
studies were considered inferior through much of the 19th century.
Robert Ridgway wrote in the introduction to The
Birds of North
and Middle America that:
There are two essentially different kinds of ornithology: systematic
or scientific, and popular. The former deals with the structure and
classification of birds, their synonymies and technical descriptions.
The latter treats of their habits, songs, nesting, and other facts
pertaining to their life histories.
This early idea that the study of living birds was merely recreation
held sway until ecological theories became the predominant focus of
ornithological studies. The study of birds in their habitats
was particularly advanced in Germany with bird ringing stations
established as early as 1903. By the 1920s the Journal für
Ornithologie included many papers on the behaviour, ecology, anatomy
and physiology, many written by Erwin Stresemann. Stresemann changed
the editorial policy of the journal, leading both to a unification of
field and laboratory studies and a shift of research from museums to
Ornithology in the United States continued to be
dominated by museum studies of morphological variations, species
identities and geographic distributions, until it was influenced by
Stresemann's student Ernst Mayr. In Britain, some of the earliest
ornithological works that used the word ecology appeared in 1915.
The Ibis however resisted the introduction of these new methods of
study and it was not until 1943 that any paper on ecology
appeared. The work of
David Lack on population ecology was
pioneering. Newer quantitative approaches were introduced for the
study of ecology and behaviour and this was not readily accepted. For
Claud Ticehurst wrote:
Sometimes it seems that elaborate plans and statistics are made to
prove what is commonplace knowledge to the mere collector, such as
that hunting parties often travel more or less in circles.
David Lack's studies on population ecology sought to find the
processes involved in the regulation of population based on the
evolution of optimal clutch sizes. He concluded that population was
regulated primarily by density-dependent controls, and also suggested
that natural selection produces life-history traits that maximize the
fitness of individuals. Others like Wynne-Edwards interpreted
population regulation as a mechanism that aided the "species" rather
than individuals. This led to widespread and sometimes bitter debate
on what constituted the "unit of selection". Lack also pioneered
the use of many new tools for ornithological research, including the
idea of using radar to study bird migration.
Birds were also widely used in studies of the niche hypothesis and
Georgii Gause's competitive exclusion principle. Work on resource
partitioning and the structuring of bird communities through
competition were made by Robert MacArthur. Patterns of biodiversity
also became a topic of interest. Work on the relationship of the
number of species to area and its application in the study of island
biogeography was pioneered by
E. O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur.
These studies led to the development of the discipline of landscape
A mounted specimen of a red-footed falcon.
John Hurrell Crook studied the behaviour of weaverbirds and
demonstrated the links between ecological conditions, behaviour and
social systems. Principles from economics were introduced
to the study of biology by Jerram L. Brown in his work on explaining
territorial behaviour. This led to more studies of behaviour that made
use of cost-benefit analyses. The rising interest in sociobiology
also led to a spurt of bird studies in this area.
The study of imprinting behaviour in ducks and geese by Konrad Lorenz
and the studies of instinct in herring gulls by Nicolaas Tinbergen,
led to the establishment of the field of ethology. The study of
learning became an area of interest and the study of bird song has
been a model for studies in neuro-ethology. The study of hormones and
physiology in the control of behaviour has also been aided by bird
models. These have helped in finding the proximate causes of circadian
and seasonal cycles. Studies on migration have attempted to answer
questions on the evolution of migration, orientation and
The growth of genetics and the rise of molecular biology led to the
application of the gene-centered view of evolution to explain avian
phenomena. Studies on kinship and altruism, such as helpers, became of
particular interest. The idea of inclusive fitness was used to
interpret observations on behaviour and life-history and birds were
widely used models for testing hypotheses based on theories postulated
W. D. Hamilton
W. D. Hamilton and others.
The new tools of molecular-biology changed the study of bird
systematics. Systematics changed from being based on phenotype to the
underlying genotype. The use of techniques such as DNA-DNA
hybridization to study evolutionary relationships was pioneered by
Charles Sibley and
Jon Edward Ahlquist resulting in what is called the
Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy. These early techniques have been replaced by
newer ones based on mitochondrial DNA sequences and molecular
phylogenetics approaches that make use of computational procedures for
sequence alignment, construction of phylogenetic trees and calibration
of molecular clocks to infer evolutionary relationships.
Molecular techniques are also widely used in studies of avian
population biology and ecology.
Rise to popularity
The use of field glasses or telescopes for bird observation began in
the 1820s and 1830s with pioneers like J. Dovaston (who also pioneered
in the use of bird-feeders), but it was not until the 1880s that
instruction manuals began to insist on the use of optical aids such as
"a first-class telescope" or "field glass."
Page from an early field guide by Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey
The rise of field guides for the identification of birds was another
major innovation. The early guides such as those of Thomas Bewick (2
volumes) and William Yarrell (3 volumes) were cumbersome, and mainly
focused on identifying specimens in the hand. The earliest of the new
generation of field guides was prepared by Florence Merriam, sister of
Clinton Hart Merriam, the mammalogist. This was published in 1887 in a
series Hints to Audubon Workers:Fifty
Birds and How to Know Them in
Grinnell's Audubon Magazine. These were followed by new field
guides including classics by Roger Tory Peterson.
The interest in birdwatching grew in popularity in many parts of the
world and it was realized that there was a possibility for amateurs to
contribute to biological studies. As early as 1916, Julian Huxley
wrote a two part article in The Auk, noting the tensions between
amateurs and professionals and suggested the possibility that the
"vast army of bird-lovers and bird-watchers could begin providing the
data scientists needed to address the fundamental problems of
Organizations were started in many countries and these grew rapidly in
membership, most notable among them being the Royal Society for the
Birds (RSPB) in Britain and the
Audubon Society in the
Audubon Society started in 1885. Both these organizations were
started with the primary objective of conservation. The RSPB, born in
1889, grew from a small group of women in
Croydon who met regularly
and called themselves the "Fur, Fin and
Feather Folk" and who took a
pledge "to refrain from wearing the feathers of any birds not killed
for the purpose of food, the
Ostrich only exempted." The organization
did not allow men as members initially, avenging a policy of the
British Ornithologists' Union to keep out women. Unlike the RSPB,
which was primarily conservation oriented, the British Trust for
Ornithology (BTO) was started in 1933 with the aim of advancing
ornithological research. Members were often involved in collaborative
ornithological projects. These projects have resulted in atlases which
detail the distribution of bird species across Britain. In the
United States, the Breeding
Bird Surveys, conducted by the US
Geological Survey have also produced atlases with information on
breeding densities and changes in the density and distribution over
time. Other volunteer collaborative ornithology projects were
subsequently established in other parts of the world.
The tools and techniques of ornithology are varied and new inventions
and approaches are quickly incorporated. The techniques may be broadly
dealt under the categories of those that are applicable to specimens
and those that are used in the field, however the classification is
rough and many analysis techniques are usable both in the laboratory
and field or may require a combination of field and laboratory
Bird preservation techniques
The earliest approaches to modern bird study involved the collection
of eggs, a practice known as oology. While collecting became a pastime
for many amateurs, the labels associated with these early egg
collections made them unreliable for the serious study of bird
breeding. In order to preserve eggs, a tiny hole was pierced and the
contents extracted. This technique became standard with the invention
of the blow drill around 1830.
Egg collection is no longer
popular; however historic museum collections have been of value in
determining the effects of pesticides such as
physiology. Museum bird collections continue to act as a
resource for taxonomic studies.
Morphometric measurements of birds are important in systematics
The use of bird skins to document species has been a standard part of
Bird skins are prepared by retaining the key
bones of the wings, leg and skull along with the skin and feathers. In
the past, they were treated with arsenic to prevent fungal and insect
(mostly dermestid) attack. Arsenic, being toxic, was replaced by
borax. Amateur and professional collectors became familiar with these
skinning techniques and started sending in their skins to museums,
some of them from distant locations. This led to the formation of huge
collections of bird skins in museums in Europe and North America. Many
private collections were also formed. These became references for
comparison of species and the ornithologists at these museums were
able to compare species from different locations, often places that
they themselves never visited.
Morphometrics of these skins,
particularly the lengths of the tarsus, bill, tail and wing became
important in the descriptions of bird species. These skin collections
have been utilized in more recent times for studies on molecular
phylogenetics by the extraction of ancient DNA. The importance of type
specimens in the description of species make skin collections a vital
resource for systematic ornithology. However, with the rise of
molecular techniques, it has now become possible to establish the
taxonomic status of new discoveries, such as the Bulo Burti boubou
(Laniarius liberatus, no longer a valid species) and the Bugun
liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum), using blood, DNA and feather samples
as the holotype material.
Other methods of preservation include the storage of specimens in
spirit. Such wet-specimens have special value in physiological and
anatomical study, apart from providing better quality of DNA for
Freeze drying of specimens is another technique
that has the advantage of preserving stomach contents and anatomy,
although it tends to shrink making it less reliable for
In the field
The study of birds in the field was helped enormously by improvements
in optics. Photography made it possible to document birds in the field
with great accuracy. High power spotting scopes today allow observers
to detect minute morphological differences that were earlier possible
only by examination of the specimen in the hand.
A bird caught in a mist net
The capture and marking of birds enables detailed studies of
life-history. Techniques for capturing birds are varied and include
the use of bird liming for perching birds, mist nets for woodland
birds, cannon netting for open area flocking birds, the bal-chatri
trap for raptors, decoys and funnel traps for water birds.
A researcher measures a wild woodpecker. The bird's right leg has a
metal identification tag.
The bird in the hand may be examined and measurements can be made
including standard lengths and weight.
Feather moult and skull
ossification provide indications of age and health. Sex can be
determined by examination of anatomy in some sexually non-dimorphic
species. Blood samples may be drawn to determine hormonal conditions
in studies of physiology, identify DNA markers for studying genetics
and kinship in studies of breeding biology and phylogeography. Blood
may also be used to pathogens and arthropod borne viruses.
Ectoparasites may be collected for studies of coevolution and
zoonoses. In many of cryptic species, measurements (such as the
relative lengths of wing feathers in warblers) are vital in
California condor marked with wing tags
Captured birds are often marked for future recognition. Rings or bands
provide long-lasting identification but require capture for the
information on them to be read. Field identifiable marks such as
coloured bands, wing tags or dyes enable short-term studies where
individual identification is required.
Mark and recapture
Mark and recapture techniques
make demographic studies possible. Ringing has traditionally been used
in the study of migration. In recent times satellite transmitters
provide the ability to track migrating birds in near real-time.
Techniques for estimating population density include point counts,
transects and territory mapping. Observations are made in the field
using carefully designed protocols and the data may be analysed to
estimate bird diversity, relative abundance or absolute population
densities. These methods may be used repeatedly over large time
spans to monitor changes in the environment. Camera traps have
been found to be a useful tool for the detection and documentation of
elusive species, nest predators and in the quantitative analysis of
frugivory, seed dispersal and behaviour.
In the laboratory
Many aspects of bird biology are difficult to study in the field.
These include the study of behavioural and physiological changes that
require a long duration of access to the bird. Non-destructive samples
of blood or feathers taken during field studies may be studied in the
laboratory. For instance, the variation in the ratios of stable
hydrogen isotopes across latitudes makes it possible to roughly
establish the origins of migrant birds using mass spectrometric
analysis of feather samples. These techniques can be used in
combination with other techniques such as ringing.
The first attenuated vaccine developed by
Louis Pasteur was for fowl
cholera and was tested on poultry in 1878. Anti-malarials were
tested on birds which harbour avian-malarias.
Poultry continues to
be used as a model for many studies in non-mammalian immunology.
Studies in bird behaviour include the use of tamed and trained birds
in captivity. Studies on bird intelligence and song learning have been
largely laboratory based. Field researchers may make use of a wide
range of techniques such as the use of dummy owls to elicit mobbing
behaviour, dummy males or the use of call playback to elicit
territorial behaviour and thereby to establish the boundaries of bird
Emlen funnel is used to study the orientation behaviour of
migratory birds in a laboratory. Experimenters sometimes place the
funnel inside a planetarium to study night migration.
Studies of bird migration including aspects of navigation, orientation
and physiology are often studied using captive birds in special cages
that record their activities. The
Emlen funnel for instance makes use
of a cage with an inkpad at the centre and a conical floor where the
ink marks can be counted to identify the direction in which the bird
attempts to fly. The funnel can have a transparent top and visible
cues such as the direction of sunlight may be controlled using mirrors
or the positions of the stars simulated in a planetarium.
The entire genome of the domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) was sequenced
in 2004 and was followed in 2008 by the genome of the zebra finch
(Taeniopygia guttata). Such whole genome sequencing projects allow
for studies on evolutionary processes involved in speciation.
Associations between the expression of genes and behaviour may be
studied using candidate genes. Variations in the exploratory behaviour
of great tits (Parus major) have been found to be linked with a gene
orthologous to the human gene
DRD4 (Dopamine receptor D4) which is
known to be associated with novelty-seeking behaviour. The role of
gene expression in developmental differences and morphological
variations have been studied in Darwin's finches. The difference in
the expression of Bmp4 have been shown to be associated with changes
in the growth and shape of the beak.
The chicken has long been a model organism for studying vertebrate
developmental biology. As the embryo is readily accessible, its
development can be easily followed (unlike mice). This also allows the
use of electroporation for studying the effect of adding or silencing
a gene. Other tools for perturbing their genetic makeup are chicken
embryonic stem cells and viral vectors.
Summer distribution and abundance of
Canada goose using data from the
North American Breeding
Bird Surveys 1994–2003
With the widespread interest in birds, it has been possible to use a
large number of people to work on collaborative ornithological
projects that cover large geographic scales. These citizen
science projects include nationwide projects such as the Christmas
Bird Count, Backyard
Bird Count, the North American Breeding
Bird Survey, the Canadian EPOQ or regional projects such as the
Asian Waterfowl Census and Spring Alive in Europe. These projects help
to identify distributions of birds, their population densities and
changes over time, arrival and departure dates of migration, breeding
seasonality and even population genetics. The results of many of
these projects are published as bird atlases. Studies of migration
using bird ringing or colour marking often involve the cooperation of
people and organizations in different countries.
Bird strike and
Wild birds impact many human activities while domesticated birds are
important sources of eggs, meat, feathers and other products. Applied
and economic ornithology aim to reduce the ill effects of problem
birds and enhance gains from beneficial species.
Red-billed quelea are a major agricultural pest in parts of Africa.
The role of some species of birds as pests has been well known,
particularly in agriculture. Granivorous birds such as the queleas in
Africa are among the most numerous birds in the world and foraging
flocks can cause devastation. Many insectivorous birds are
also noted as beneficial in agriculture. Many early studies on the
benefits or damages caused by birds in fields were made by analysis of
stomach contents and observation of feeding behaviour. Modern
studies aimed to manage birds in agriculture make use of a wide range
of principles from ecology. Intensive aquaculture has brought
humans in conflict with fish-eating birds such as cormorants.
Large flocks of pigeons and starlings in cities are often considered
as a nuisance and techniques to reduce their populations or their
impacts are constantly innovated.
Birds are also of medical
importance and their role as carriers of human diseases such as
Japanese Encephalitis, West
Nile Virus and
H5N1 have been widely
Bird strikes and the damage they cause in
aviation are of particularly great importance, due to the fatal
consequences and the level of economic losses caused. It has been
estimated that the airline industry incurs worldwide damages of US$1.2
billion each year.
Many species of birds have been driven to extinction by human
activities. Being conspicuous elements of the ecosystem, they have
been considered as indicators of ecological health. They have
also helped in gathering support for habitat conservation. Bird
conservation requires specialized knowledge in aspects of biology,
ecology and may require the use of very location specific approaches.
Ornithologists contribute to conservation biology by studying the
ecology of birds in the wild and identifying the key threats and ways
of enhancing the survival of species. Critically endangered
species such as the
California condor have had to be captured and bred
in captivity. Such ex-situ conservation measures may be followed by
re-introduction of the species into the wild.
Avian ecology field methods
List of ornithologists
List of ornithologists abbreviated names
List of ornithological societies
List of ornithology journals
List of ornithology awards
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History of ornithology in North America
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Hill ornithology collections
Birds (class: Aves)
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List by population
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Casuariiformes (emus and cassowaries)
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Karl Ernst von Baer
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