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Working with birds

Logo: BTO
A Peregrine Falcon in flight
Peregrine Falcon, a bird that David White spent a lot of time monitoring at RSPB Symonds Yat as a volunteer (Philip Croft-BTO)

I sometimes get asked how I got into my ‘line of work’. I have worked for wildlife related non-government organisations for most of the last 15 years. My current role is Engagement and Surveys Officer for England for the BTO.

There are many possible routes into getting a job working with birds. In this article, I will address some frequently asked questions by drawing on some of my own experiences.

David white with binoculars at Beachy Head
David White at Beachy Head (Gary White)

One assumption is that to get a job working with birds or in nature conservation, you need to have a biology-based degree. Although a biology-based degree can be a great help, it isn’t essential. My degree is in Pure & Applied Philosophy from the University of Central Lancashire. Although on the face of it, this may not seem to have anything to do with my job, the modules that I studied about environmental ethics helped to rekindle my childhood interest in wildlife.

 

BTO does a periodic survey to find out how their staff got into their role. Here are some results from this survey about degrees:

  • 81 members of staff anonymously responded to the survey
  • 95% of those surveyed had an ‘BA’ type degree
  • Out of those degrees, 82% were in a biology-based subject

   

That leads me to a closely related question: whether it is necessary to train to be a bird ringer to work with birds. This can help but again isn’t essential. Although I am not a bird ringer myself, mainly due to my poor hand-eye coordination, I have learnt a lot about birds and their movements from bird ringers. It helps to know a good amount about the UK’s birds and getting involved in bird ringing is a great way to do that.

Many of my BTO colleagues are bird ringers and are regularly out ringing in their spare time. Some of the best advice I was given by a bird ringer was: ‘Make sure that you learn as many songs and calls of the birds that breed in the UK or visit the UK regularly over the course of a typical year.’ Although it took me a considerable amount of time to do this, it has helped me massively over the course of my career. This is helpful (?) not only for taking part in wildlife surveys, but also for leading guided walks for a variety of audiences.   

BTO volunteer searching for birds nests in a hedgerow
BTO volunteer searching for birds nests as part of the Nest Record Scheme (Mike Toms-BTO)

Another route that can lead to working with birds is volunteering for wildlife related non-government organisations (NGOs). This not only gets your name ‘out there’ with key organisations, it also provides you with an important insight into what it is like working in the sector. My first volunteering experience was at RSPB Arne and mainly involved engaging with reserve visitors in the car park. I was also fortunate enough to do a few residential volunteering placements with the RSPB at RSPB Symonds Yat and at RSPB Arne. I performed a wide variety of roles whilst doing these placements, which helped me to get my first job working with birds.

It is important at this point to address a barrier that prevents some people from getting a job working with birds: Not having a driving licence. I started volunteering with the RSPB in summer 2005 and didn’t pass my driving test until summer 2008. To get to RSPB Arne from my parent’s house, I had to do a 20-mile round trip on my bicycle along busy roads with no cycle lanes. When I was doing my residential volunteering placements at Symonds Yat, I had to do a six-mile round trip through the Forest of Dean every day to get from my accommodation to the Peregrine viewpoint. When I got my first job with the RSPB, I had to rely on the train to get me to and from work, which was around 35 minutes each way.

Many nature reserves, ringing sites and survey sites are in remote locations. Some of these places may be accessible by public transport, but not necessarily at the times that you need to get to them (e.g., very early in the morning for bird ringing or late at night for Nightjar surveys).

However, if you don’t have a driving licence or a car, do not despair! There are now more urban nature reserves than ever before, which offer opportunities for bird ringing and wildlife surveys within towns and cities. Also, many roles with wildlife related non-government organisations can now be done remotely. Therefore, especially if you have a flair for communications, statistics or computing for example, there should hopefully be some suitable virtual roles for you.  

Dartford Warbler singing
Dartford Warbler, which has one of the first birdsongs and calls that David White learnt as a young birdwatcher (Liz Cutting-BTO)

Taking part in wildlife surveys is another great way of getting into working with birds! A wide range of organisations coordinate surveys, and here a few that the BTO are involved with:

I have tried to arrange them according to complexity, in terms of time commitment and wildlife ID requirements.

You may also be interested in signing up for one of BTO’s training courses, which are designed to boost your bird ID skills and address some of the barriers that people have regarding taking part in wildlife surveys:

https://www.bto.org/develop-your-skills/training-courses

David White

BTO Engagement & Surveys Officer (England)

Email: david.white@bto.org

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Posted On: 17/09/2022

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