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What do we call study of birds?

The study of birds is formally known as ornithology. Ornithology is a branch of zoology, which is the study of animals. An ornithologist is a scientist who specializes in the study of birds.

Birds are a diverse and fascinating group of vertebrate animals. There are approximately 10,000 living species of birds worldwide, making them the most numerous tetrapod vertebrates. Birds inhabit all continents and ecosystems, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The study of birds has captivated humankind for centuries.

Early ornithological studies focused on observations of bird behavior, anatomy, and distribution. Scientists and naturalists like Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, John Ray, and Mark Catesby made important early contributions to the field. The invention of the scientific binoculars in the 19th century revolutionized bird observation and study.

Modern ornithology encompasses a wide range of specializations. These include avian ecology, genetics, evolution, physiology, behavior, conservation, and taxonomy. New technologies like satellite tracking and DNA analysis have further advanced avian research. Ornithologists today continue to make fascinating discoveries that expand our understanding of birds.

History of Ornithology

The study of birds dates back thousands of years to ancient cultures like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Birds captivated humans with their ability to fly, seasonal migrations, elaborate songs, and striking displays. Ancient peoples incorporated birds into their myths, legends, and religions.

Aristotle is considered the earliest scientist to take an ornithological approach to studying birds in the 4th century BCE. He recorded detailed observations on anatomy, behavior, flight, migration and reproduction in his writings on natural history. The Roman author Pliny the Elder also described many species of birds in his Naturalis Historia published circa 77-79 CE.

During the Renaissance era in Europe, interest in natural history grew. Exploration and colonization also expanded knowledge of new bird species. Naturalists and artists like Conrad Gessner, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and John Ray began cataloguing bird species and describing their features. Mark Catesby’s 18th century Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands contained some of the first authoritative illustrations of American bird species.

In the 19th century, ornithology flourished as a formal scientific pursuit. Researchers like Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon traveled to observe and paint North American birds, capturing their natural beauty in vivid detail. New technology like binoculars with high magnification made it easier to study wild birds.

Charles Darwin’s contributions on evolution influenced comparative anatomy studies of birds. Smithsonian scientists Spencer Fullerton Baird and Robert Ridgway made extensive classifications on American bird species. European ornithologists like Erwin Stresemann pioneered new fields like behavioral research and avian paleontology.

Modern ornithology blossomed in the 20th century. Universities began teaching formal courses and establishing research facilities devoted to birds. Long-term studies on bird populations were initiated. New technologies like radio telemetry tracking and DNA analysis opened up research on migration routes, genetic relationships and phylogeny between species.

Key Figures in Ornithology

Name Nationality Time Period Contributions
Aristotle Ancient Greece 4th century BCE Early scientific observations on bird anatomy, reproduction, behavior
Conrad Gessner Swiss 16th century Book Historiae animalium with illustrations of many bird species
Mark Catesby English 18th century Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands with illustrations of American birds
John James Audubon American 19th century Book Birds of America with detailed paintings of over 700 species
Erwin Stresemann German Early 20th century Pioneer in bird behavior, ecology, paleontology studies
Robert Ridgway American Late 19th century Comprehensive classification of American bird species at Smithsonian

Branches of Ornithology

Modern ornithology encompasses a diverse array of specializations and subdisciplines. Some major branches of ornithological study include:

Avian Ecology

Studies the relationships between birds and their environment. Includes research on habitat utilization, adaptations, territoriality, feeding behaviors, competition, reproductive strategies, and more.

Conservation Biology

Focuses on studying endangered birds and protecting threatened populations and habitats. Involves monitoring of population declines and implementing recovery plans.

Evolution and Systematics

Examines the evolutionary relationships between different bird groups and changes over time. Involves phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic classification of species.

Genetics and Genomics

Analyzes the genomes and genetic variation within and among bird species. Useful for understanding genetic health, migratory connectivity, species divergence, and evolutionary adaptation.

Physiology and Comparative Anatomy

Studies the anatomy and physiological functions of birds. Research on the avian cardiovascular and respiratory systems, sensory capabilities, endocrinology, and more provide insight on adaptation and evolution.

Ethology and Behavioral Ecology

Observes and analyzes the behaviors and behavioral ecology of birds in their natural environments. Includes research on foraging, mating, territoriality, nesting, parenting, and social behaviors.

Avian Paleontology

Studies bird fossil records to learn about prehistoric species, ancestry, extinction, and evolution over millions of years. Trace fossils and other evidence also provide clues on the paleoecology of ancient birds.

Field Research Methods

Encompasses techniques for studying wild birds in their natural habitats. Includes methods like bird banding, surveying, radio telemetry tracking, sound recording, DNA sampling, and data analysis.

Modern Tools Used in Ornithology

Technology has opened up new avenues for ornithology research and gathering detailed data on birds. Some examples of modern tools include:

Radio Telemetry

Tracking devices attached to birds can transmit radio signals about their movements and geographic locations. Useful for researching migration routes and travel times.

Satellite Tracking

Solar-powered satellite transmitters mounted on birds provide real-time GPS data on locations during migration. Reveals precise travel routes and timing across continents.


Light-level loggers record and store time-stamped light intensity data that can be analyzed to reconstruct locations after geolocators are recovered.

Stable Isotope Analysis

Comparing ratios of stable hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen isotopes in bird tissue provides information on geographical areas traveled and dietary patterns.

Digital Recording Devices

Audio and video recorders can capture bird vocalizations, behaviors, nesting activity, and interactions. Allows detailed analysis and avoids observer bias.

Molecular Genetics

DNA sequencing and analysis reveals genetic relationships, phylogeny, parentage, population connectivity, and evolutionary adaptations.


Airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) scanners precisely map surfaces and vegetation down to branch-level to study bird habitats.

Computer Modeling

Ecological and climate computer models help predict impacts of environmental changes and climate change on future bird populations and distributions.

Major Discoveries

Application of new technologies and long-term studies have enabled groundbreaking ornithological discoveries. Some examples include:

Migration Routes

Satellite tracking of migratory songbirds like Swainson’s thrush and wood thrush revealed loop migration patterns between North and South America over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

Extinct Species

Ancient DNA analysis of petrel bones from Pacific islands indicated multiple extinct storm petrel species. Fossil studies from Hawaii also revealed many extinct bird radiations.

Tool Use

Remote video observation revealed tool use behaviors in Hawaiian crows. Crows used sticks to extract food from holes and modified branches into hooked tools.

Dinosaur-Bird Link

Numerous discoveries of feathered theropod fossils (like Sinosauropteryx and Microraptor) support the dinosaur ancestry of birds. Shared features like feathers, wishbones, and nesting behaviors provide further evidence.

Deep Sea Diving

Video recording of emperor penguins in Antarctica documented their extremely deep dives reaching 565 meters (1870 feet) to forage for food underneath sea ice.

White Eye Ring Function

Research found that contrasting white or light eye rings in many tropical bird species reduces glare and aids in seeing in shaded forests.

Giant Flightless Birds

Megafaunal bird remains in New Zealand established the existence of enormous flightless birds like the moa up to 3.6 m (12 feet) tall and weighing 230 kg (500 lbs).

Research Institutions

Major ornithological research is carried out at natural history museums, universities, government agencies, and field research stations around the world. Some of the most prominent ornithology programs and collections include:

Institution Location Description
American Museum of Natural History New York, USA Over 75,000 bird specimens, pioneering ornithological exploration and classification
Cornell Lab of Ornithology New York, USA Conservation research, citizen science projects, multimedia bird materials
National Aviary Pittsburgh, USA Conservation and research facility with about 600 live birds of 150 species
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Washington D.C., USA Comprehensive bird collections and research on phylogeny, biogeography, behavior
Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology California, USA Over 1 million bird egg sets and 62,000 bird specimens
Natural History Museum at Tring England 750,000 bird skins, nests, eggs; historic Rothschild ornithology collections
Yamashina Institute for Ornithology Japan Research on ecology, behavior, evolution, conservation, and molecular biology


Scientific research and discoveries are published in peer-reviewed ornithology journals. Top journals include:

  • The Auk – Published by the American Ornithological Society since 1884
  • Ibis – British Ornithologists’ Union journal published since 1859
  • Journal of Avian Biology – Published by Wiley
  • The Condor – Published by the Cooper Ornithological Society since 1899
  • Journal of Field Ornithology – Published by Wiley
  • The Wilson Journal of Ornithology – Published by the Wilson Ornithological Society since 1889
  • Bird Study – Published by Taylor & Francis
  • Journal of Ornithology – Published by Springer
  • Emu – Austral Ornithology – CSIRO journal published since 1901
  • Ardea – Dutch ornithology journal published since 1913

Professional Associations

Major ornithological membership organizations that support research and collaboration include:

  • American Ornithological Society
  • Association of Field Ornithologists
  • Black Swamp Bird Observatory
  • Cooper Ornithological Society
  • Neotropical Ornithological Society
  • Raptor Research Foundation
  • Wilson Ornithological Society
  • Association of European Rarities Committees
  • British Ornithologists’ Union
  • British Trust for Ornithology
  • Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (German Ornithologists’ Society)
  • Japanese Society for Preservation of Birds
  • Neotropical Ornithological Society
  • Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union
  • South American Classification Committee


The formal study of birds has progressed tremendously from the days of Aristotle to cutting-edge tools and global collaborations between scientists today. Ornithology remains a vibrant field that continually offers fascinating new insights into avian biology, conservation, evolution, and ecology. The public also contributes with their interest in birds, supporting research and participating in citizen science projects. Looking ahead, ornithology will continue enhancing our understanding of the natural world and our place within it as new technologies open up new possibilities for discovery.