This post was contributed by Erin O’Connor, a junior at Oklahoma State University in the pre-veterinary program.
I began my junior year at Oklahoma State University by sitting down in my 9:30 AM ornithology class. As the class began, my professor, Dr. Tim O’Connell, asked the first question of the semester: why was each of us interested in birds. He went around the whole class making sure everyone answered, and I heard many different ideas about birds. Many said that they liked them because they are pretty or they liked to hunt them, and others wanted to study them for a living. Dr. O’Connell made it clear that he didn’t expect everyone to dedicate their lives to birds but hoped that we could appreciate them more. As the semester continued, my classmates and I did grow more interested in birds, and in turn, birds made our world more connected.
When it was my turn to answer the question about why I was interested in birds, I answered that it was because I want to treat them in the future. I am a natural resource ecology and management student on the pre-veterinary track. Although I find birds to be fascinating, what I find most interesting is how to best care for them in a veterinary sense and to ensure they stay healthy. My experiences with birds until this point had consisted of assisting veterinarians in the care of pet birds in animal clinics and assisting in the rehab of wild birds through the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in the DuPage county forest preserve.
I’m from Naperville, Illinois. It was somewhat of a culture shock to hear the different birds when I first moved to Stillwater as a freshman, and I couldn’t tell what bird was singing throughout campus until I took Dr. O’Connell’s ornithology class. Despite hearing and handling many birds, it was the Carolina Chickadee that stumped me. Until this class, I thought it was a Black-capped Chickadee that was a little off, since I’d never seen or heard of a Carolina Chickadee! Although my academic life won’t center on ornithology, I am glad to have experienced it during my time at OSU. Not only did I finally get to know the birds on campus, but I also got to see how the science of ornithology paired with people’s lives.
I got to see just how much everyone is impacted by the birds that surround us when we had our first outdoor lab. It was a chilly morning in September when my class teamed up with the graduate-level Applied Ecology Lab class to band birds. Despite it being early in the morning for college students, everyone there was incredibly excited to see all the birds that we found. As the graduate students processed the birds’ data, all of the undergraduates gathered around to watch as if it was Christmas day. I remember talking excitedly with people next to me about the birds and asking professors questions because I wanted to know more. Once each bird’s data was recorded, the undergraduates were able to handle and release them. As I watched others handle the birds, I could see a ton of laughter and excited smiles. As a male cardinal was passed around, people shared stories of how the birds were significant to their lives and families. Eventually, I handled a Swainson’s Thrush after it had been banded. Much like my classmates, my face lit up with a smile. When it was time to say goodbye to the small bird, seeing it fly off back to the forest made getting up early totally worth it. This lab was able to combine research for Dr. Scott Loss and appreciation for the birds that we banded. Not only were we able to get a good number of birds banded for future research, but we also got to understand more about what we were taught in class through hands-on experience.
As the semester progressed, the class talked more about the data that supports ornithology. Before this class, I had heard of eBird through my other natural resource classes, but I didn’t know just how much you could do with it. As a part of the class, Dr. O’Connell required everyone to submit proof of 14 eBird checklists done throughout the semester. We talked about how ornithologists standardize the data from eBird to understand the changing ranges and abundance of birds. At one point Dr. O’Connell brought up a live website that showed a map of the world displaying where and when people were submitting to eBird. I had thought that eBird was a relatively niche app, but the breadth across the United States alone was shocking to me.
I was able to see how people were contributing to furthering ornithology not only through eBird, but also through the use of BirdCast. Seeing the migration paths of groups of birds through the use of the U.S. weather surveillance radar network was awesome. When I helped with wildlife rehabilitation in my home state, I’d seen several birds that wouldn’t normally be residents in the Chicagoland area. Seeing how the weather and changing seasons affect birds’ paths helped me to piece together why I might have seen things such as Snowy Owls, Upland Sandpiper, and Sandhill Cranes. Overall, while I know ornithology had a breadth of applications, I didn’t know how exactly people got data. Seeing the different technologies and applications for data reinforced how ornithology is more than just pure science, and learning about the different ornithological societies that are out there introduced me to more resources that I could turn to in the future to learn more and engage more. Before this class, I didn’t realize just how interconnected ornithologists are or that there are local chapters of ornithological societies. I think it’s that sense of interconnectedness that has most spurred me to continue my interest in this part of science.
Outside of the classroom, I have found that by learning more about birds, my world has gotten smaller—in a good way. My family loves to send me texts about birds that they have seen and questions about them. Professors in classes outside of natural resources have talked with me about their interest in birds and possible applications in subjects such as biochemistry and animal nutrition. I have also seen that my little cousins in particular have immense excitement for the natural world and love to ask me every question under the sun about the birds they see. Whenever I can come back home, they ask me what birds I’ve seen with energy I wish I still had. It seems that even if I don’t dedicate my academic life to ornithology, my life will always be surrounded by birds. Each person I’ve come across has had at least one story to share, whether it be deeply personal or a passing interest. It seems that these feathery creatures have flown their way into each and every one of our lives.