10 December 2009

Table of Contents

This ornithology course originated from lecture notes that I developed over the years. I have retired from teaching and see little reason to have this resouce, such as it is, gather dust in some drawer. In this blog format, I offer it to you as a free, non-credit, self-study exercise.  As such, you many expect little or no interaction from me (although I will be glad to hear about possible editorial improvements).
  • Introduction
  • What is a Bird?
  • Ornithology (Ornithology and birding)
  • Flight (Advantanges and adaptations for flight)
  • Origin and Evolution of Birds (The evolution of flight)
  • Taxonomy and Systematics (Species and evolution)
  • Ethology (Behavior, innate vs. learning, personal behaviors)
  • Social Behavior (Communication, Territory, Flocking, Courtship and Breeding, Nesting, Incubating, and more)
  • Migration (The whys and hows of migration, What about birds that don't migrate?)
  • Feathers (Kinds, molt, color)
  • Ecology (Extinction, Geographical Ecology, Population Ecology)
  • History of Ornithology (Very brief, mostly American)
  • Concluding Remarks (You could well start here--feeding birds, binoculars, birding organizations)
Barred Owl

09 December 2009


This ornithology course originated from lecture notes that I developed over the years. I have retired from teaching and see little reason to have this resouce, such as it is, gather dust in some drawer. In this blog format, I offer it to you as a free, non-credit, self-study exercise.  As such, you many expect little or no interaction from me (although I will be glad to hear about possible editorial improvements).

This blog is not intended as an all-inclusive course. For example, I also taught courses in Ecology and Evolution, so many fundamental aspects of those courses are not found here. It would be wise, then, to have a General Biology textbook, in case something is not fully explained here. I expected students taking this course to purchase an ornithology textbook. Later, students bought Thayer's CD-ROM disk, Birds of North America, that has a brief textbook embedded within it. Either way, you can go into various subjects in more depth or check out areas that may be neglected here. Students should also make extensive use of Google or other search engines.  Clicking on many words in this blog will lead directly to Google, whence students can retype the term and see where Google takes you.  Just don't forget to return to the course!

During a "normal" Ornithology course, students would have an extensive laboratory experience. I emphasize heavily field identification. Students should buy any field guide and spend up to four hours per week trying to identify birds.  Field work is the skill that many students will use throughout their lives and makes an Ornithology course especially valuable. (What is a "normal" Ornithology course?  I suspect that each ornithologist would come up with a different course, depending upon the interest of the scientist!  This situation is certainly the case with this course.)

I received my Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. While there I took Ornithology courses from Dr. George H. Lowery, Jr., and Dr. James Van Remsen. In many ways, this course evolved from those graduate courses. This course is dedicated to my wife, Erika, without whose assistance and support, I would not have enjoyed a successful ornithological career.

Common Loon


 Song Sparrow

What can ornithology do for you? Why study it? In no other branch of science have amateurs played such an important role: Margaret Nice's Life History of the Song Sparrow is a classic example. My students have written papers in their state bird journal. But I don't mean to make you all into scientists. Bird watching (birding) is a hobby for many and a passion for some. Housewives (and even househusbands) trapped at home find an outlet by keeping track of the varieties of birds at outdoor feeders. You'll never get bored traveling between cities to--you may even enjoy the trip. Trips across the country become down-right exciting as you search for and find new and different species. You become more in tune with the world, our ecosystem.

Goals and Supplies

Birding's beauty is that it only takes a field guide and a pair of binoculars--WHICH IS ALL YOU NEED, AT LEAST 7x35, (but 8x or 10x are better; the second number is your field of vision, so a big number there is a good thing), walking shoes and old clothes. More on these subjects are covered in the concluding remarks section of this course. If you are interested, two exellent ornithology texts are Gill's Ornithology, published by Freeman and Welty's The Life of Birds. Current students have a rudimentary textbook embedded in their CD-ROM. Thayer's Birds of North America.

1) to enhance your appreciation of birds.
2) to encourage you to make observations or investigations of your own.

My name is Dan Tallman. I am an ornithologist by training. I will try to keep unnecessary technical terms out of this course, which is often hard for someone who is completely immersed in his or her scientific field. But, hopefully, as a birder by hobby, I can also recognize for you which terms are important to include.

As a first assignment, study "topography of bird" and "parts of wing" in any text or field guide.   How do bird arms and legs compare the human ones?


Bald Eagle

During this course I expect you to keep a life list of the birds you see--either in the book or on a checklist. Of course, if you keep it up after the course is over is up to you. Many birders keep a life list of species seen throughout their whole lives. I keep track of the dates and places all around the world. (Some people are into cathedrals and Rembrandt's but I race out to the nearest swamp!) If you keep up birding seriously, you might want to start a Year List in addition to a life list, monthly lists state lists, big days, world lists, semesters, country lists, Christmas counts, spring counts are all examples of lists people keep. Birding can quickly become a sport that can involve any number of players. The South Dakota Ornithologists' Union saw 150 species in one weekend in Sisseton, South Dakota. The sport can be costly too--once friends saw a Bald Eagle and jumped out of their jeep. Unfortunately, nobody turned the jeep off, so it proceeded into a lake! A fellow named Vardemann wanted to list 700 species in one year in North America: he fell 2 short and spent $30,000 trying! (All sports have their fanatics.)

Some will spare no expense to see a new bird: a Ross's Gull in New England brought out thousands from all over the country to some poor sucker's front yard. A Brambling in Bismark, North Dakota, was kept quiet for fear of intruding birders. Black Rails have been literally trampled to death by the hordes of bird watchers searching for them! But, by in large, folks are mostly sympathetic to birders--many don't hunt and so aren't destructive to private property (although a farmer was once upset at my walking across his newly planted turf). In fact, birdwatchers have somewhat of a bad name among hunters as some are vehemently anti-hunting. But, to be a good hunter, you must be a good bird identifier. I have always believed that all hunters should have to have a bird identification license. If you can't tell a grebe from a duck, you should not have a shotgun in your hand--so to become a good hunter is another reason to take ornithology
If you don't become a rabid birder that's OK too. Bird behavior is a fascinating study and you can specialize in just the birds of your farm or backyard. Any educated person ought to know the parts of the Thanksgiving turkey he or she is carving up. I firmly believe that people should know the plants and animals of their home state--in the past, this knowledge has always been the mark of an educated person.

Birds have always had a great aesthetic value to people--perhaps because of their ability to fly: (even though this ability has left birds remarkably stupid: having a bird brain means you don't have to think about problems, you just fly away).

Welty included this quote in his ornithology textbook: "When the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker surveyed native school children of Northern Rhodesia and asked them, given a free choice, what they most wanted to be, nearly half the boys wanted to be birds. Almost half the girls wanted to be boys, but about one quarter of the girls wished that they, too, might become birds."

Birds, of course, have great value for people: not only because of all the insects and weed seeds they consume (without birds, of course, we would have ecological catastrophe) but because they act as an index to our ecological well being--just as old-time miners took canaries into mines to warn of deadly gas concentrations.

This is not to suggest that birds can not cause damage to farmers. One of the favorite quotes of the ornithologist Alan Phillips was "If ever I am accused of destroying the crops, I would certainly want an ornithologist to defend me." A farmer, however, should be able to tell which birds are actually doing the damage or he may actually be costing himself money in the long run.