I write this column for beginning birders of any age. I write it for people who’ve got a seed of interest in their minds about birds, and I’m trying to sprinkle a little water on that seed and help it grow.
I don’t know if it’s worked on anyone, but please allow me to flatter myself and think that it has. That seed has burst into a gigantic climbing vine of birding love, and you’re now officially and hopelessly a birder. You’re getting up early during migration. You’re chasing rare birds into other states. You’re comparing shades of gray on the backs of gulls in a landfill in the middle of winter. Your obsession is all-consuming.
But you might be finding that this isn’t enough.
Some people want more to do with birds than just identify them. If you’re finding that you’re one of those people, it might be worth thinking about finding a career involving birds.
Unfortunately, “professional birder” isn’t really a thing. Unless you’re a genius and figure out how to get someone to pay you to find birds while also covering your healthcare and whatnot (oh please please tell me your secret first), every birding-related career I can think of involves at least some real work. And real work sometimes means annoying bosses and performance reviews and taxes and all that stuff. This is to say that a career involving birds doesn’t necessarily guarantee full-time fulfillment.
At the same time, it does mean you get to work with or on behalf of birds. A lot of people I know who have bird-related careers can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a rare thing to really love what you do, and for people who love birds, these careers give them that opportunity. From scientists to writers, policy advocates to tour guides, there are jobs out there for birders of all ages and skill sets. I wasn’t able to hit everything here—don't forget great careers such as professional photographer, park ranger, and environmental lawyer—but I wanted to at least explore a few of the options I find most appealing to get you thinking.
When I think of a job with birds, the first thing that jumps to mind is a wildlife biologist. These are hands-on people. I see them all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds—out in the field somewhere, getting sunburned, holding birds, taking measurements, practicing science. Wildlife biologists work for universities, state or federal agencies, and other science- or conservation-oriented organizations. They conduct studies and research on animals to answer all kinds of questions, like what the impacts of a particular human activity is on the local bird population.
Wildlife biologists and other scientists need to be in school for a long time before they can get out there working, so like most careers highlighted here, this is one best chosen at a fairly young age. Wildlife biologists start with a bachelor’s degree, but a lot of folks follow all the way through to a Ph.D before being able to lead their own labs or obtain a professorship. All that schooling can take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. Additionally, scientists often have to deal with challenging government or university budgets for their programs. It ain’t all mist nets and banding stations.
Yet all the wildlife biologists I know really seem to love their work. One of those people is Dan Rauch, who is a fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Department of Energy and Environment in Washington, D.C. Dan works for the D.C. government and is responsible for the inventory and monitoring of birds in the city. That includes taking actions that would help to conserve those birds, improving wildlife habitat, and protecting D.C.'s natural resources for future generations.
He sees a ton of great birds. And he loves it. “Every day is an adventure,” he told me. “You never know what you are going to see or experience. There is always a behavior that I have not seen, or an interaction between birds, or watching raptors hunt, or some other glimpse into their world.” And this is in D.C.! Imagine if you were a biologist in a place that actually had a bunch of good birds! (It’s okay, I live in D.C. and can say that.)
I asked Dan for some advice about how someone considering a career in science might get started, and he highly recommended college internships. Here's Dan: “Internships during college are key to finding out about your interests and what direction you want your career to head in, and they’re also key to making contacts that can offer advice or even job opportunities in the future. There are plenty of short-term field assignments to gain quick experience and see if fieldwork is for you.” Great advice for a young, aspiring scientist.
The internship advice was also given by another biologist, Drew Weber of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Drew is the Merlin Project Coordinator at the Macauley Library at Cornell, meaning he helps coordinate and develop the cool new Merlin bird ID app. Drew was an environmental studies major during undergrad, but he didn’t really find his passion until he . . . wait for it . . . got a summer internship doing field surveys.
Drew’s advice for the wannabe scientist is to “not pigeonhole yourself into being ‘just’ a biologist. Take on a minor in something that seems completely unrelated, but that you are interested or talented in, whether it’s business administration, web design, or mobile development.” More good advice.
In my day job, I’m a policy advocate, helping manage energy and landscape conservation issues for a non-partisan non-profit called the National Parks Conservation Association. We are not part of the government, but rather an independent group trying to make sure our national parks—and the birds within them—are as well taken care of as possible.
I’m no scientist, but I like to think of what I do as taking recommendations from scientists and attempting to turn them into specific changes in how our world operates. For example, a bunch of scientists and economists identified a problem with how natural gas was being developed on federal lands—thousands of wells were burning off or simply releasing excess methane gas into the atmosphere. The gas was causing air pollution, and taxpayers weren’t getting paid for the waste of their resource. The identification of the problem turned into a solution: rules that my colleagues and I helped shape that limit the waste of natural gas on federal lands. (Those rules were finalized in late 2016 but are now under Congressional attack. Help!) Scientists are great at finding facts, but it takes others to turn those facts into policy.
Policy is changed by making the case to the policymakers. That means educating all our parks and bird-loving members about why certain policies will result in the best outcomes. It then means asking those educated members to ask their representatives to enact those changes, and we ourselves must lobby those representatives to make positive changes. When successful, it’s incredibly gratifying. When unsuccessful, as it often is, it’s still better than a whole lot of other jobs I can think of.
There are lots of ways to get into this field. I went to law school, but you don’t have to. Like Dan Rauch, I also did a lot of internships to help me meet people in the field and figure out whether it was something I liked. I echo his advice about using internships for experience and a foothold. There are lots of groups out there working to protect birds on local, national, and international levels, and believe me, we need help more than ever.
Professional Bird Guide
Being a bird guide is probably the closest you can get to being a professional birder. Bird guides are employed by tour companies to take paying birders on trips and show them all the birds they can. Some guides work for companies that travel to exotic foreign locations, while other guides become experts in their local state or area and show visiting birders around. Becoming a guide means you're the best at finding and identifying species paying customers want to see.
This is the real dream, right? Getting paid to travel all over the place and take people birding? It might not get any better.
Though it still isn’t perfect. I’m no guide, but I’ve been on guided trips before and know how hard guides work. You always have to tend to the customers, no matter how demanding they are. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure you find the species you’re after. There are a lot of logistics to deal with.
Uh, that’s all I can think of actually. Being a birding guide would be the best, even if you have to deal with some of those crankier birders. Keep honing those identification (and interpersonal) skills, and maybe one day you’ll be qualified enough to become a pro guide. Good luck!
Bird Guide Author/Illustrator
I don’t know if this is a realistic option for most, but I wanted to include it because it’s probably the only thing that rivals professional bird guide at the top of the dream-job charts here. There are only a small number of field-guide authors and illustrators in the world, and those people have put in years of work compiling the reams of information necessary to come out with new information on a group of birds or a region of the world. It’s hard to be a bird guide author, is what I’m saying. But dang would it be cool to stroll by the bookstore and see your name on the binding!
Even though authoring field guides is a difficult dream to accomplish, it can be done, and I wanted to ask someone how they did it. So I turned to Kenn Kaufman, a field editor for Audubon, author of the Kaufman Field Guide series, the memoirs Kingbird Highway and Flights Against the Sunset, and innumerable other writings and projects, about what he would say to someone thinking about writing a field guide. His first reaction was to quote Monty Python: “Run away!”
“When I ‘wrote’ my field guide to North American birds,” Kenn said, “I estimate that I spent almost 3,500 hours working in Photoshop on the color plates; more than 1,500 hours working in Illustrator to draw and revise the range maps; more than 1,000 hours carefully arranging everything in the page-layout program; and maybe about 500 hours actually writing. (And that was after about 30 years of research.) So, to become a writer, there are easier ways to get there.”
In summary, if you have 30 years for research and 6,500 hours to put something together, field-guide authorship might be for you! If not, maybe look elsewhere.
Most birders write about birds in one form or another. It might be as simple as eBird checklist notes or listserv posts or the occasional tweet, but it’s still writing. Fewer birders can make a career as an established, self-supported bird writer, though. Field-guide authors and novelist Jonathan Franzen are about the only examples I can think of.
I began blogging about birds in 2006 when I found myself sitting in a cubicle thinking nonstop about birds instead of the work I was supposed to be doing. The spread of blogs at that time was a revelation, allowing me and millions of other writers to develop a voice and share it easily with a lot of people (or, in my case, like a few hundred a month). Being able to continue writing about birds in a number of forums over the years has been a genuine pleasure. But it still doesn’t come close to paying the bills and providing 401(k) matches. In order to write enough to make a living, you need to be really good and be able to write a whole lot. Still, I imagine it’s good work if you can get it.
Being “a writer” isn’t the only way to write about birds for a living, of course. Editing is just as important, often involves just as much writing as editing, and can often provide a steady paycheck. Andrew Del-Colle is the editor of the Audubon website and is the poor soul who has to shape my ramblings into a readable column every week, which he does with aplomb. He got into the business by getting a master's degree in journalism and magazine editing. He’s worked for various publications, but he’s a lifelong birder and says he always expected to work for Audubon at some point in his career. I asked Andrew what advice he’d give someone looking to get into editing stories about birds.
“There are several ways to get into this world, but I still typically recommend going to school for journalism or editing while also getting real experience—and, most importantly, bylines—through media internships,” he said. “That's not the only path, though. Martha Harbison, our network content editor, went to school for biology and chemistry and spent 10 years as a scientist before transitioning to journalism, eventually landing at Audubon. Hannah Waters, our associate online editor, also got a degree in biology, but she had several media internships that helped her break into the industry. Ultimately, whatever your background, what matters most to any publication or website is that you’re a hard worker, have a knack for writing and reporting, and are someone with lots of great story ideas, which is invaluable. Of course, here, being interested in birds also helps.”
While not all bird-related careers are just for young folks, being young when you decide to pursue one sure helps. Either way, for those who feel that it's a little too late to switch careers, volunteering is always an option, and I'd be remiss to not include it here despite it not technically being a career. I was lucky enough to visit the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary a few weeks ago and spend some time in the company of a whole bunch of older folks who volunteered their time to take care of the sanctuary, lead tours, and perform other services to keep the place humming. I have to say, they all seemed to be having a grand old time.
Volunteering is an excellent way to get more involved with birds on your own terms and schedule (mostly). There are volunteer opportunities in almost any bird-friendly organization or facility, and the best advice is to think of a place or a group you like and ask what’s out there. If you're interested in getting involved in your local Audubon chapter or center, check here.
Finally, I don’t want to end this column without mentioning something important: You don’t need to have a career in birds to love birding. Lots and lots of the best birders have day jobs that have nothing to do with birds or animals at all. They’re teachers or lawyers or construction workers or whatever they heck they are, and they love their job just as much as I love mine. I wanted to discuss this topic to show young birders the breadth of careers that might be open to someone interested in birds, not to make a statement that you need to. No matter the day job, birders all have a love of birds in common, and sometimes that’s enough.