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Course Overview

Course Description
How does it work?
What is included?
Who should take this course?
Chapter Topics


Course Description


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Home Study Course in Bird Biology is a basic ornithology class designed to provide comprehensive, college-level information on birds and their environments in a manner accessible to nonscientists and teachers the world over. It covers all major topics in ornithology (see Chapter Topics, below).

The course was written by 12 leading ornithologists and edited by Lab staff to provide consistency among the various topics. More than 10,000 students completed the first edition of the course between 1972 and 1998.

How does it work?

The course requires the Handbook of Bird Biology, 2nd edition, which unfortunately is out of print.

Because of continuing demand, we still offer the course to those who are able to find a copy of the Handbook. If you don’t already have a copy, you might be able to borrow one from a library, friend, or nature center, or find a used one online or in a used book store.

To successfully complete the course you must read the 10 chapters of the Handbook (we recommend reading them sequentially), answer the exam questions at the end of each chapter, and mail the exams to the Lab for grading and comment.

While many of the exam questions require thoughtful contemplation, all can be answered through careful reading of the text. In addition, course staff are on hand to answer your questions, either by telephone or e-mail.

After completing all 10 chapters and exams with passing grades, you will receive a certificate of completion signed by the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell University does not offer college credit for this course, but many students have received course credit through their own local colleges or universities. Please inquire for more information.

What is included?


When you enroll you will receive:

  • Exam questions for each chapter
  • Complete instructor support
  • Answers to your specific questions about material covered by the course
Who should take this course?


This course is written at an introductory college level, and understanding the material does not require a background in biology or science. The course does require a serious interest in birds, simply because of its depth and detail. Successful students have included:
  • Birders of all skill levels
  • High school and college students
  • Home schoolers
  • Wildlife biology professionals
  • Nature center and museum staff
  • Wildlife rehabilitators
  • Pet bird owners and breeders
Chapter Topics


Birds and Humans: A Historical Perspective
Sandy Podulka, Marie Eckhardt, and Daniel Otis; Cornell University

  • The role of birds in historical and contemporary human societies
  • Birds as food
  • Birds in religion, folklore, art, and literature
  • Birds and early natural science

Introduction: The World of Birds
Kevin J. McGowan; Cornell University

  • What is a bird?
  • The diversity of bird forms
  • How birds are named
  • Bird distribution throughout the world

A Guide to Bird Watching
Stephen W. Kress; Audubon

  • How to identify birds in the field by size, shape, sound, color, behavior, and field marks
  • Choosing and using binoculars and spotting scopes
  • Recording and using field notes

Form and Function: The External Bird
George A. Clark; University of Connecticut

  • Feathers: Their structure, function, and care
  • Non-feathered areas
  • Molts and plumages
  • How colors are produced

What's Inside: Anatomy and Physiology
Howard E. Evans and J.B. Heiser; Cornell University

  • Skeletons, muscles and internal organs
  • The nervous system and senses, circulation and respiration, hormones and reproduction, digestion and excretion. Water and temperature regulation

Birds on the Move: Flight and Migration
Kenneth P. Able; SUNY Albany

  • Understanding how birds fly
  • Hovering, soaring, flying in formation
  • Why and how birds migrate and navigate?

Evolution of Birds and Avian Flight
Alan Feduccia; University of North Carolina

  • Archaeopterix and the fossil record of birds
  • Theories on the evolution of avian flight

Understanding Bird Behavior
John Alcock; Arizona State University

  • Instinct and learning
  • Social behavior, displays and their functions, mating systems
  • Understanding behavior through the theories of natural selection and evolution

Vocal Behavior
Donald E. Kroodsma; University of Massachusetts

  • The diversity of bird sounds explored and explained through sonagrams and an accompanying compact disc
  • Bird songs, calls, and their functions

Nests, Eggs, and Young: Breeding Biology of Birds
David W. Winkler; Cornell University

  • Nest types, eggs, and patterns of clutch variability
  • Roles of the sexes during nesting
  • Development of young, nestling care
  • Brood parasitism
  • Evolution of nesting behavior

Individuals, Populations, and Communities: The Ecology of Birds
Stanley A. Temple; University of Wisconsin

  • How birds interact with their physical and living environments
  • Feeding ecology, how ecosystems work, ecological niches
  • Bird associations: population dynamics, communities, symbiosis

Bird Conservation
John W. Fitzpatrick; Cornell University

  • The importance of biodiversity
  • Why and how do birds decline in number, become endangered, go extinct?
  • Legal aspects of conservation: the Endangered Species Act
  • Conservation success stories

  • Sidebars, with fun and fascinating information on selected topics, in each chapter
  • Glossary of terms for each chapter
  • List of common and scientific names of all birds mentioned in the text
  • Annotated suggested readings