Undergraduate Courses

David Bonter shows students wing feathers
Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab.

Cornell offers a wonderful spectrum of classes in ornithology, ranging from basic introduction to advanced study in specialized fields. Many are taught by Cornell Lab of Ornithology faculty or staff. 

Ornithology Seminar (BIOEE/NTRES 7800)

Fall. 1 credit. A community-building event masquerading as a seminar series and learning opportunity. Held on Tuesday nights, with (usually) two 30-minute talks about avian research followed by free pizza and social time. Very welcoming of students at every Cornell stage, including first-year students, new transfer students, and new grad students; if you are brand-new to Cornell there is no faster way to meet people, find out about opportunities, and become broadly networked into our ornithology community. Just enjoy the seminars and then stick around to chat with folks during the pizza time!

Biology Seminar: mini-courses on birds (BIOG 1250)

Fall, spring. 1-2 credits. These special courses meet for half of a standard semester (usually seven times total) with the goal of creating an inspiring entry-point for students to engage with a new topic and get to know their professor in a small class setting. They have a reputation for being a lot of fun and not at all stressful, so they are a great way to learn something interesting while meeting new friends. They are designed for first-year students but open to all students.

Ornithology-related BIOG 1250 courses are offered nearly every semester, but the topics vary (check out the website for forthcoming offerings). Recent offering in this series have included:

Seven Nights in the Museum of Vertebrates. This course is a fun and friendly introduction to the fascinating world of specimen-based research. Students will gain behind-the-scenes experience that highlights all of the vertebrate collections and their many uses, while also having the chance to prepare a few new specimens of their own that will become a permanent part of the collection for future research (note: no killing is involved since we use animals that died of natural causes, which in the museum world we term ‘salvage specimens’). We will discuss the ethics of specimen-based research and explore the types of studies done with specimens, including potential opportunities for undergraduate research projects.

Birds Can Tell Us Things and We Should Listen: An Introduction to Ornithology and Bird Study Techniques. Unlike most mammals that rely on a keen sense of smell, birds, like humans, use sounds and vivid color vision to survive and communicate with each other. Did you know that the sound frequency range of bird song is nearly identical to the range of human hearing? Birds have a lot to tell us, if we know what questions to ask. By using the principles of scientific inquiry to observe and listen to birds, we learn not only about birds, but about ecology, animal behavior, evolution, physics, and potential environmental threats to our planet. Using a multidisciplinary approach—including bioacoustics, capture and sampling methods, genetics, citizen science, and conservation biology—this course will teach the fundamentals of ornithology and field techniques for studying birds. The seven, two-hour sessions will combine hands-on field and lab exercises with group discussions about critical thinking and the importance of framing a working scientific question. Bring your boots and binoculars and prepare to have some birding fun!

First-Year Writing Seminars featuring Ornithology

Fall, spring. 3 credits. All undergraduates are required to take two first-year writing seminars (unless they test out with AP scores). These courses are designed to cover significant writing components. Cornell Lab faculty, staff, and graduate students generally teach a few each year on fun topics related to birds, animal behavior, conservation, etc. Topics rotate, with specific course numbers and descriptions included in the annual first-year writing seminar brochure. Note that enrollment occurs via the lottery system administered by the Knight Writing Program.

Field Methods in Ornithology (NTRES 2400)

Fall. 3 credits. Provides a hands-on introduction to  methodologies used for studying wild birds including banding, census methods (point counts, transects, spot mapping), and behavioral observations. In a 50-minute classroom session each week, students discuss relevant scientific literature and prepare for the lab session. The weekly lab session is held at various field locations. Students seeking to conduct independent research in avian ecology are encouraged to enroll. Note that one weekend field trip is required.

Art and Science of Birds: Biological Illustration for Understanding Nature (BIOEE 1130)

Spring. 2 credits. This course is an introduction to the practice of biological illustration through drawing and watercolor, with a focus on Ornithology. Appropriate for students with all levels of prior hands-on art experience, and for all levels of prior knowledge of birds and ornithology. Students will start with training in line drawing to build confidence, practice shading techniques to understand tone and value, and be introduced to the principles of perspective, composition, and color theory. Fun science themes are embedded throughout, to help show how art can inform science, and science inform art.

Techniques of Avian Specimen Preparation (BIOEE 1150)

Fall. 2 credits. This course has two main objectives: (i) to illustrate the diverse uses of natural history collections for research, teaching and conservation, and (ii) to introduce students to the fine art of avian specimen preparation. Students will learn multiple specimen preparation techniques (skeletons, spread wings, and round skins) and will be required to prepare 20 round skins to receive course credit. Students will be evaluated on the quality of their specimens and on a short (3-page) essay advocating the value of natural history collections. Outcome 1: Practice avian specimen preparation. Outcome 2: Integrate examples of diverse uses of specimens to articulate the value of natural history collections.

Ornithology (BIOEE 4750)

Spring, alternate years. 5 credits. Many consider this the nation’s premier undergraduate ornithology course. Lectures cover the full range of ornithological themes, and the associated “Birds of the World” laboratory covers all 230 avian families.

Field Ornithology (BIOSM 3740)

Summer. 3 credits. A field course on avian ecology and behavior held at Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab.

Tropical Field Ornithology (BIOEE 2640, 2641, 2642)

Fall, winter, spring. 3 credits. A field ornithology course held annually in the Dominican Republic, appropriate for Biology and non-Biology majors alike. Teaches basic ornithology field techniques, such as mist-netting and identification in the field. Taught using an unusual “sandwich” schedule where class meets for the second half of the Fall semester, travels to the field site during the Winter break in January, and reconvenes on campus for the first half of the Spring semester.

Ecology and Conservation of Wildlife in the Neotropics (BIOEE 2525/2526)

Fall, winter, spring. 4 credits. An intensive field course held annually in Patagonia. Students learn experimental design, data collection, and statistical analysis within the context of fieldwork. Taught using an unusual ‘sandwich’ schedule where class meets for the second half of the Fall semester, travels to the field site during the Winter break in January, and reconvenes on campus for the first half of the Spring semester.  View course website.

Introduction to Conservation Biology (NTRES/BIOEE 2670)

Fall. 2–3 credits. An exploration of concepts and practices related to conserving the earth’s biodiversity, appropriate for both non-science and science majors.

Introductory Field Biology (NTRES 2100)

Fall. 4 credits. Introduction to field identification, natural history, and study of plants, animals, and natural systems.

Introduction to Evolutionary Biology and Diversity (BIOEE 1780)

Fall, spring, summer. 4–5 credits. A core-curriculum Biology course frequently taught by Ornithology faculty.

Introductory Biology: Ecology and the Environment (BIOEE 1610)

Fall, spring, summer. 3–4 credits. A core-curriculum Biology course frequently taught by Lab faculty.

Neurobiology and Behavior I: Introduction to Behavior (BIONB 2210)

Fall, summer. 3–4 credits. General introduction to the field of animal behavior frequently taught by Lab faculty. Topics include evolution and behavior, behavioral ecology, sociobiology, chemical ecology, communication, orientation and navigation, and hormonal mechanisms of behavior.

Animal Communication (BIONB 4260)

Spring, alternate years. 4 credits. Communication is the “glue” that holds societies together, and this course examines how and why animals communicate. Topics include the role of the environment in shaping animal signals, whether animals tell the truth to each other, why some bird songs are simple and others complex, and what kinds of signals might be exchanged between species.

Introduction to Research Methods in Biology (BIOG 2990/4990 and similar courses)

Opportunities for undergraduates to conduct independent research under the formal mentorship of Lab-based faculty and staff.

Outdoor Birding Basics (PE 1606)

Spring. 1 credit. Learn to identify and understand the behaviors of the birds in our area. This course is offered as a collaboration between Cornell Outdoor Education and the Lab.