Are There Careers in Birding?
I began birding in my late teens/early 20’s, and became mildly obsessed with it. I knew that I wanted to have a career with birds. I was certain then that I would, in fact, become a professional bird watcher (or some variation thereof). But I was wrong.
The first problem was finding a graduate program in ornithology. Pre-Internet, that was very hard--it involved going through large books that you couldn’t remove from the library because of their bulk and importance. I found that ornithology--or even ecology--programs are few and far between, mostly found in very prestigious, expensive universities. I did not get into my first choice of graduate schools, and was unhappy with my second choice. Several of the ecology classes advertised in the course book would be canceled each semester, due to lack of enrollment. The school’s specialty, it seemed, was not nature study but biotechnology. And why not? At that time, there were plenty of jobs for pharmaceutical technicians. There were never a lot of jobs for birders.
Even getting a part-time job at a nature center was a challenge. I sent a resume to one of the top interpretive centers in New Jersey, one that was run by the federal government. The ranger there actually chased me down at my work number, a number I didn’t provide on my resume. I was ecstatic as I returned his call, certain he was offering me a job to lead a nature walk. I imagined myself pointing out all the different flora and fauna on the side of the wooden trail: here’s a wood duck, here’s a hooded merganser, here’s a turtle, a snake (there are actually more reptiles than birds at this particular place.)
Instead of a job offer, though, the ranger gave me a lecture. In order to work at this nature center, I would have to pay my dues as a seasonal temp at the national park service, accepting any job offered to me, at any park nationwide. After many years, I would gain enough seniority to get stationed at this park, if I were lucky. Until then, don’t even think of it. He meant well, but I was crushed.
A year later, after more canceled classes and other problems, I dropped out of the ecology program and went into an education program for a teaching certificate. I have never regretted that decision, although I have played the “what if” game a few times over the years.
Twenty years later, it is easier to find birding jobs and ornithological programs, thanks to the Internet. Many of the jobs are volunteer or internship positions, and many involve living in campsite-like conditions. I’ve never been a camper, and after seeing the conditions the puffin researcher must live in on Eastern Egg Island in Maine (isolation, no electricity or running water), I think maybe everything worked out for the best. It may be too late for me to become a professional birder, but it may not be too late for you. If you don’t mind using an outhouse or cooking over a fire, by all means, go for it!
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