Tropical Avian Ecology


Brown pelican.web

Brown Pelican

Scott T. Walter, Ph.D.

Tulane University
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
6823 St. Charles Ave., 400 Lindy Boggs
New Orleans, LA 70118
Phone: (337) 591-1188


Course Description

This course will begin with an introduction to the ecology and conservation of tropical birds, within the context of how a wide range of species utilize and interact with diverse ecosystems. We will learn extensive field identification techniques to facilitate identification of a variety of bird species from families common in the U.S., as well as species in families unique to the neotropics. Field observations will also be used to identify various bird guilds, and to study avian habitat use across different landscapes around the ITEC field station. A review of avian conservation topics will then transition the class into field research. Following training in ecological study design, students will form small groups to conduct research projects. We will address data management, statistical analysis, and presentation techniques as students prepare to orally present their research results. Finally, each student will design and implement an independent research project that includes data analysis and formal presentation. Lectures in research manuscript preparation will guide students in writing short reports on group and individual research projects.  See Bocas Birds for a species list of birds found in our area.


Throughout the course there will be classroom lectures that provide the foundation for the avian ecology and conservation information that we will further observe and study in the field. As different birds are active at different times of the day and night, our schedule will vary to accommodate the study of particular species. As this is a field course, the majority of time will be spent observing and studying birds in the field. Lecture topics may include:

  • Tropical bird background
  • Residents and migratory species

    Shining honey male.web

    Red-legged Honey Creeper

  • Bird field identification
  • Avian guilds
  • Niche partitioning; habitat use vs. availability
  • Bird conservation topics and research in the tropics
  • Importance of seed dispersal by birds
  • Bird demographic measures
  • Research paper critiquing
  • Experimental design and data collection
  • Research implementation, planning, and logistics
  • Data management
  • Statistical analysis
  • Research presentation pointers
  • Research manuscript preparation

Texts, Readings and Handouts

  • The Birds of Panama, George R. Angehr and Robert Dean.  Zona Tropical Publications. 2010. ISBN: 978-0-9798804-5-2.
  • Select readings from Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds, Bridget J.M. Stutchbury and Eugene S. Morton. Academic Press 2001, 165pp. ISBN: 978-0-12-675555-8.
  • Select readings from Ornithology, Third Edition, Frank Gill, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-0-71-674983-7
  • Select research articles.

Field Excursions, Demonstrations, and Exercises

Green Kingfisher.web

Green Kingfisher

Course emphasis will be placed on hands-on experience with a wide variety of bird observation and sampling techniques. Field outings may include:

  • Field observation, sampling, and survey techniques
  • Use of mist nets
  • Seed dispersal by birds
  • Use of rocket-, woosh, or cannon nets
  • Bird morphometic measures
  • Seabird colony visit to Bird Island
  • Dawn chorus auditory observation
  • Nocturnal bird auditory observation
  • Point count surveys (T-Tests, and Shannon-Weiner species diversity indices)
  • Habitat use vs. availability surveys (Goodness of Fit statistics)
  • Nesting behavior
  • Foraging behavior
Red-breasted blackbird.web,crop

Red-breasted Blackbird

Required Gear

  • Binoculars
  • Field clothing and foot ware
  • Headlamp
  • Field observation notebook (of the ‘Rite in the Rain’ name brand)
  • See the “What To Bring” list

Group Field Research Projects

Topics for group projects are provided by the instructor and are designed to provide experience in asking field research questions, designing and implementing field research projects, data management and analysis, research presentation, and manuscript preparation. Projects will also provide an opportunity to utilize field sampling and survey techniques presented throughout the course. Teams of 3 to 4 students will work together to develop these projects and the instructor will provide overview and feedback. Group projects may include:

  • Species diversity and use of mist nets
  • Differences in bird body condition across habitats
  • Habitat use vs. availability of nesting seabirds
  • Seed diversity and dispersal by birds
  • Differential foraging techniques and success

Individual Field Research Projects

Following group project completion and professor feedback, students will develop an ecological research question of their own interest, design a study, and implement the project. Students will be given independence to conduct these studies while the instructor provides oversight and mentoring as needed. Projects will culminate in presentations to the student body, faculty, and staff at the ITEC research station, as well as to interested locals. Research manuscripts from these projects will serve as the final project for the course.

Green Heron.web

Little Green Heron


Up to 6 units of credits will be given, 3 for the lecture portion and 3 for the field portion. A letter grade will be assigned based on exams, proposals, reports, and attendance, in addition to overall enthusiasm, motivation, and attitude. Course credit must be arranged at the student’s home institution; see the “Obtaining Credit” link for details.