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Ornithology is an event for the 2020 season concerning science that concerns the study of birds. The competition includes both identification of birds and questions about bird characteristics (anatomy, diet, range, etc). There are 185 species on the Official Bird List for 2011, which are separated into 19 orders. Any of the species on the Official Bird List may be tested on during the competition. However, some states may use a modified bird list.

Ornithology rotates with Forestry, Entomology, Invasive Species, and Herpetology every 2 years for both B and C division. The last time it was an event was 2011. It was rotated out for Forestry 2012-2013 and Forestry was rotated out for Entomology in 2014.

Overview of the Event

This event is geared towards the study of birds. For the event, you need to know how to identify birds. In addition, there will be questions relating to any of the birds on the Official Bird List. You may need to know the call of any of the birds marked with a musical note.

The event should be run either with stations, or as a PowerPoint. Stations (or PowerPoint slides) can include:

Each team may bring one published field guide (two for nationals) which may be tabbed, written in, or drawn in, one double sided sheet of paper with notes in any form, and the two page Official Bird List.

Identification questions can be to any level indicated on the Official Bird List.

Questions about the birds may be about any of the following topics:

  • Life History
  • Distribution
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Reproduction
  • Habitat characteristics
  • Ecology
    • Behavior
    • Habitat
    • Symbiotic relationships
    • Trophic level
    • Adaptive anatomy
      • Bill size and shape
      • Migration
      • Distribution
      • Occurrence (common, rare, endangered, etc.)
  • Diet
  • Behavior
  • Conservation
  • Biogeography

Field Guides

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

  • It includes all species that are on the national birds list.
  • It provides full color painted pictures of all birds which can be more useful than pictures for assistance in identification due to the more archetypal quality of the presentation.
  • It provides several painted representations of many species, usually of the different color patterns or body types seen in males, females, juveniles, and different plumages throughout the year.
  • Information on each species is relatively sparse to non-existant.
  • Very complete range maps are in the back.
  • This field guide is sold in the Science Olympiad store.

The Sibley Guide to Birds

  • It includes all species that are on the national birds list.
  • It provides full color painted pictures of all birds which can be more useful than pictures for assistance in identification due to the more archetypal quality of the presentation.
  • It provides several painted representations of many species, usually of the different color patterns or body types seen in males, females, juveniles, and different plumages throughout the year.
  • Includes paintings of the birds in flight.
  • Information on each species is relatively sparse.
  • Large margins are suitable for notation.
  • Most editions are less cumbersome than the Sibley.

Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America

  • It includes most species on the national birds list.
  • Every bird has one or more color photographs on it's own respective page.
  • Information in the book is much more complete than either the Sibley or Peterson.
  • Relatively little blank space is available for notation.
  • Less cumbersome than the Sibley or larger editions of the Peterson.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

  • It includes most if not all species on the national birds list.
  • It provides several painted representations of many species, usually of the different color patterns or body types seen in males, females, juveniles, and different plumages throughout the year.
  • Information in the book is more complete than either the Sibley or Peterson.
  • There is more space in the margins than in the Smithsonian, but less than in the Sibley or Peterson.
  • Less cumbersome than the Sibley or larger editions of the Peterson.
  • It features a "Quick-Find Index".

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

  • It includes most species on the national birds list.
  • Every bird has one or more color photographs on it's respective page.
  • Information in the book is much more complete than either the Sibley or Peterson.
  • Relatively little blank space is available for notation.
  • It has fewer pages than other mentioned books.
  • The guide is organized by bird family groupings rather than strict taxonomic classification; this is a feature that will appeal especially to beginners.
  • Color-coded tabs identify each grouping of birds (waders, warblers, sparrows, etc.) for quick thumb indexing.
  • Less cumbersome than the Sibley or larger editions of the Peterson.

Some Other Guides

  • The guides above (with the exception of the Kaufman) come in eastern and western editions as well as the more complete editions mentioned above. These may be useful when paired together at the national tournament.
  • The Audubon produces turtleback field guides for eastern and western birds with picture plates and a medium amount of information on each bird.
  • There are several easy to use but light on information and identification "pocket-guides" such as the Golden guide series.
  • National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America
  • Birds of North America, Revised and Updated: A Guide To Field Identification, is the Golden guides more complete field guide.
  • American Museum of Natural History: Birds of North America (otherwise known as Vuilleumier) contains all but one bird (Northern Jacana) on the list and provides extensive information on each one, such as feeding and nesting, and also includes some trivia. It's more of an encyclopedia than a field guide.
  • DK Smithsonian Birds of North America is similar to the Vuilleumier, but provides even more information. However, its pictures are not very high quality.

Tips on choosing a field guide

  • Different people have different needs, and a field guide that one person likes a lot may not work out for a different person.
  • When choosing your field guide, you must find a balance between identification and information.
  • A guide that is good for identification may have many detailed drawings of each bird, such as the Sibley guide.
  • A guide that is good for information may have a paragraph or two relating to habitat, reproduction, etc. but only one or two photographs or drawings of the bird, such as the National Geographic guide.
  • In addition, the layout and size of the field guide must be taken into account. Guides that do not have most of the birds on the National List can be a big hindrance.
  • It is a good idea to obtain two contrasting guides and compare them to see which one is easier to use.
  • Remember, you can tab your field guide (to facilitate navigation) and write in it (to add information). If you plan on writing in your guide, you should get a guide with lots of extra space on the pages.

Other books

Here is a list of other books that can aid you in studying. Each book has a link to its Amazon page.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior As the companion guide to The Sibley Guide to Birds, this book is very helpful and easy to study from. The book is split into two sections: the first provides information about general ornithology, while the second includes more specific info about each family of bird. Both sections are very easy to read and understand. Strongly recommended.

Ornithology - Frank B. Gill This is a college level textbook that contains lots of information about many topics in ornithology. It gets to be very in-depth and contains much more information than what you actually need in the competition, but it is a great resource for accurate information.

Introduction to Ornithology

What is a bird?

Any creature in the class Aves is a bird. More specifically, birds are distinguished from other organisms by feathers which cover their body, bills, and often complex songs and calls. Birds are warm blooded and are bipedal with forearms adapted to be wings, though in some species the wings have become vestigial and can no longer be used for flight.

Birds have one of the most efficient respiratory systems among vertebrates, and they lay eggs that are unique for their hard shell.

There are around 10,000 known species of birds, which are found all over the earth, and on every continent. Birds occupy a large range of habitats, making them the most numerous tetrapod vertebrates.

Bird Anatomy


Topography refers to the external anatomy of a bird. The diagrams below show the basic parts of a bird.

This diagram shows the major features of a bird's body.
This diagram shows the major features of a bird's head.



A bird's respiratory system is one of the most efficient found in vertebrates. This is mainly because of their ability to fly, which creates a need for more oxygen.

Air sacks are structures unique to birds, which take up 20% of a bird's internal body space. Air sacks store air, keeping a fixed volume in the lungs. There are two types of air sacks: anterior and posterior. Sometimes, air sacks rest inside the semi-hollow bones of birds. In addition, a bird's lungs take up half of the space that mammal's lungs do, yet weight does not decrease.

When a bird takes a breath, air passes through the trachea either into the bird's lungs and then the anterior air sacks or directly into the posterior air sacks. Air in the anterior air sacks go directly through the trachea and back out of the nostrils, while air in the posterior air sacks go through the lungs, and then through the trachea as the bird exhales.

One important adaption birds have made is that new oxygen and old, waste gasses are never mixed during respiration. Also, old air is almost completely replaced by new air when a bird takes a breath.


Like many mammals (including humans), birds have a four-chambered heart. However, a bird's heart can be almost twice the size of a mammal's, and much more efficient, for the same reason as the circulatory system. Powerful flyers and divers have the largest heart relative to their body size.


A bird's skeleton is, in many ways, well-adapted for flight. The major bones of a bird's skeleton have a hollow interior with crisscrossing "struts" to provide support. Some bones contain air sacks which are used by the respiratory system. Bird skeletons generally follow a specific format, with the exception of extreme specialization.


Bird skeleton.jpg

The image above shows the bones in the average bird's wing, with the left side being the tip of the wing and the right side being where it connects to the bird's body. Notice how similar it is to a human arm. There are two major sections to the arm. The upper arm is made up of the humerus, while the lower arm consists of the radius and the ulna. Birds have 2 wrist bones (carpals). However, instead of having 5 metacarpals (hand bones), they have one bone called the carpometacarpus. This limits the mobility of the manus, but it is better adapted for flight. Birds have 3 digits and 4 finger bones (phalanges, singular phalanx). The middle and largest digit has to phalanges.

Birds' legs are slightly more complicated. What most people think of as the knees of a bird are actually the ankles, as the knees (and the upper legs (femur)) are mostly hidden by feathers. Birds have a fuse and extended foot bone (tarsometatarsus) which most people think of as the lower leg, and which give birds three sections to the leg instead of 2. The bone in the actual lower leg is the tibiotarsus, a fusion of part of the tarsus with the tibia. Birds have (at most) four toes, although some birds have less (e.g. the ostrich, which only has two toes. Refer to the image at the right for leg anatomy, and the image below for toe variations.

a = anisodactyl, b = zygodactyl, c = heterodactyl, d = syndactyl, & e = pamprodactyl
  • Anisodactyl feet have three toes forward and one backward. It's the most common toe configuration, and is used by songbirds and perching birds.
  • Zygodactyl feet have two toes forward and two toes backward. It's used by climbers such as woodpeckers because it enables a stronger grip on branches.
  • Heterodactyl feet are similar to zygodactyl ones except the second toe is reversed. It's only found on trogons.
  • Syndactyl feet have the third and fourth toe partially fused together. It's characteristic of Kingfishers.
  • Pamprodactyl feet have all four toes facing front. Swifts may use this configuration to get a better grip when hanging on the sides of chimneys or caves.

Feathers and Plumage


Birds are the only modern animals that have feathers. Feathers are made of beta-keratin, which also makes up the scales on bird's legs.

The major parts of a typical contour feather.

Contour feather - Any of the outermost feathers of a bird, forming the visible body contour and plumage. A contour feather consists of a middle shaft and a vane on both sides of the shaft. The calamus, or quill, is the base of the shaft, while the rachis supports the vanes.

The vane of a contour feather is mainly made up of barbs, which consist of rami (s. ramus) sticking out vertically from the rachis. Each ramus contains barbules, which in turn have interlocking barbicels. This gives the vane of a contour feather a tight, smooth surface.

The barbs on a typical contour feather.

Flight feathers - These feathers are only found on the wings and the tail. They are large, stiff, and aerodynamic, which is helpful in flight. There are three main types of flight feathers: primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries. In addition, feathers called coverts cover the bases of the flight feathers.

Down feather - A feather that has plumulaceous barbs. It is mostly used for insulation. Down feathers do not have a rachis; barbs are attached directly to the quill.

Semiplumes - Feathers with a long rachis and plumulaceous barbs. Like down feathers, semiplumes mainly provide insulation.

Filoplumes - Small feathers with a long rachis, but only a few barbs at the top. Filoplumes are attached to nerve endings at the base, letting them send information to the brain about the placement of contour feathers.

Bristles - Stiff feathers with some barbs found at the base. Bristles are almost always found on the face of birds. Bristles have many possible applications, including protection from insects and dust, and acting as a "net" to aid in catching insects.

Species of Birds

This section contains information about individual orders, families and species. The birds are in the same order as they are on the Official Bird List. One order of birds was removed completely from the Official Bird List in 2020 - Trogoniformes. Images of each bird, as well as comments on their identification, can be found on the complete bird list.

Bird Calls

Note: This chart includes all of the calls of the birds that are indicated for vocal identification on the National Bird List.
Order Family Species Common Name Link
Anseriformes Anatidae Cygnus buccinators Trumpeter Swan Call
Anseriformes Anatidae Anas platyrhynchos Mallard Call
Galliformes Phasianidae Bonasa umbellus Ruffed Grouse Call
Galliformes Phasianidae Tympanuchus cupido Greater Prairie-Chicken Call
Galliformes Odontophoridae Colinus virginianus Northern Bobwhite Call
Gaviiformes Gaviidae Gavia stellata Red-throated Loon Call
Ciconiiformes Ardeidae Botaurus lentiginosus American Bittern Call
Falconiformes Accipitridae Haliaeetus leucocephalus Bald Eagle Call
Falconiformes Accipitridae Buteo jamaicensis Red-tailed Hawk Call
Gruiformes Rallidae Porzana carolina Sora Call
Gruiformes Gruidae Grus americana Whooping Crane Call
Charadriiformes Charadriidae Charadrius vociferus Killdeer Call
Charadriiformes Scolopacidae Bartramia longicauda Upland Sandpiper Call
Columbiformes Columbidae Zenaida asiatica White-winged Dove Call
Columbiformes Columbidae Zenaida macroura Mourning Dove Call
Cuculiformes Cuculidae Coccyzus erythropthalmus Black-billed Cuckoo Call
Cuculiformes Cuculidae Geococcyx californianus Greater Roadrunner Call
Strigiformes Strigidae Bubo virginianus Great Horned Owl Call
Strigiformes Strigidae Strix varia Barred Owl Call
Caprimulgiformes Caprimulgidae Nyctidromus albicollis Common Pauraque Call
Caprimulgiformes Caprimulgidae Caprimulgus carolinensis Chuck-will’s-widow Call
Caprimulgiformes Caprimulgidae Caprimulgus vociferus Whip-poor-will Call
Coraciiformes Alcedinidae Megaceryle alcyon Belted Kingfisher Call
Passeriformes Tyrannidae Contopus cooperi Olive-sided Flycatcher Call
Passeriformes Tyrannidae Myiarchus crinitus Great Crested Flycatcher Call
Passeriformes Tyrannidae Tyrannus verticalis Western Kingbird Call
Passeriformes Vireonidae Vireo gilvus Warbling Vireo Call
Passeriformes Vireonidae Vireo olivaceus Red-eyed Vireo Call
Passeriformes Corvidae Cyanocitta cristata Blue Jay Call
Passeriformes Corvidae Corvus brachyrhynchos American Crow Call
Passeriformes Corvidae Corvus corax Common Raven Call
Passeriformes Paridae Poecile carolinensis Carolina Chickadee Call
Passeriformes Paridae Baeolophus bicolor Tufted Titmouse Call
Passeriformes Sittidae Sitta canadensis Red-breasted Nuthatch Call
Passeriformes Troglodytidae Catherpes mexicanus Canyon Wren Call
Passeriformes Turdidae Hylocichla mustelina Wood Thrush Call
Passeriformes Turdidae Turdus migratorius American Robin Call
Passeriformes Mimidae Mimus polyglottos Northern Mockingbird Call
Passeriformes Mimidae Toxostoma rufum Brown Thrasher Call
Passeriformes Parulidae Oporornis formosus Kentucky Warbler Call
Passeriformes Parulidae Icteria virens Yellow-breasted Chat Call
Passeriformes Emberizidae Pipilo maculatus Spotted Towhee Call
Passeriformes Emberizidae Zonotrichia querula Harris’s Sparrow Call
Passeriformes Cardinalidae Cardinalis cardinalis Northern Cardinal Call
Passeriformes Cardinalidae Passerina cyanea Indigo Bunting Call
Passeriformes Icteridae Agelaius phoeniceus Red-winged Blackbird Call
Passeriformes Icteridae Sturnella neglecta Western Meadowlark Call
Passeriformes Icteridae Icterus galbula Baltimore Oriole Call


This section addresses questions which are commonly brought up by those who are new to the event.

Q - What field guide should I use?

A - This depends on your personal preferences, as well as your strong and weak points. Three of the main field guides seem to be the Sibley, Peterson (the one recommended by the rules), and NatGeo. Peterson has very good illustrations and information on every bird on the national list. However, the Sibley guide has very good illustrations of the juvenile, male, and female birds, so it is good for ID.

Q - Are we allowed to bring two books and note sheets, or just one?

A - You are allowed to bring one commercially produced field guide and 2" or smaller 3-ring binder per team. Each team may also bring an unmodified or unannotated copy of either the 2020 National Bird List or State List which does not have to be in the binder.

Q - Are we only allowed to use field guides, or can we use other books instead?

A - The rules say you may only use commercial field guides.

Q - Should I use Wikipedia as a resource?

A - Wikipedia often has good, accessible information, but since it can be easily modified you should always cross-reference with a more reliable source.


A glossary of terms related to ornithology.
Word Definition
Altricial When a hatchling is completely dependent on its parents.
Bird Topography The external anatomy of birds; anatomical features that can be observed on the outside of a bird's body.
Contour Feather Any of the outermost feathers of a bird, forming the visible body contour and plumage.
Down A layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers.
External Anatomy See Bird Topography
Feather (n) Any of the light horny epidermal outgrowths that form the external covering of the body of birds and that consist of a shaft bearing on each side a series of barbs which bear barbules which in turn bear barbicels commonly ending in hooked hamuli and interlocking with the barbules of an adjacent barb to link the barbs into a continuous vane.
Feather (v) To grow feathers.
Feather Tract See pterylae
Horns Paired contour feathers arising from head.
Lower Mandible The lower part of the bill.
Plumulaceous Downy; bearing down.
Precocial Hatching fully developed, ready for activity, not completely dependent on parents.
Pterylae Areas of the skin from which feathers grow.
Upper Mandible The upper part of the bill.

A more detailed glossary can be found at Cornells Birds and Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature Bird and Binder Page.

Sample Questions and Answers

What is the difference between precocial and altricial young?

Precocial youung are born with open eyes and down. They are capable of leaving the nest within 2 days of hatching. Altricial young are born with closed eyes and no down. They rely on parents for survival. All passerines are altricial.

What is the purpose of lobed feet?

They allow birds to walk across marshes by increasing surface area, but provides more toe maneuverability than webbing. Coots and Grebes have lobed feet.

Describe three abilities that are unique to hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds drink nectar, can hover and fly backwards, and their tiny legs and feet make them incapable of walking.


2020 National Bird List
2010 National Bird List
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter
Bird external anatomy -- good examples of bill characteristics
The Wikipedia article on birds
Audubon links -- scroll down to the ornithology section
Good practice game for identifying -- click "Choose Specific Birds" to pick which ones can appear in the quiz.
The North Carolina state SciOly site -- Has links to all bird calls

Template:Living ID