(ENVT006) Bird Life

Cyanistes caeruleus[ Francis Franklin CC BY-SA 3.0 ]


Course start date: to be confirmed
Course end date: to be confirmed
Price: £150

Lecturer(s): To be confirmed
Course Code: ENVT006
Level: Non-accredited, non-credit bearing
Assessments/Exams: None. Throughout the course you will be given ideas and questions to respond to in the online discussion area. Participation in online discussion is encouraged, but not compulsory.
Duration: 10 weeks
Estimated Student Study Time: 2 – 5 hours per week are recommended, but time spent is flexible and at your discretion.
Price: £150.00
Pre-Requisites: No academic qualifications or experience of ornithology are required, only a strong enthusiasm for the subject.
Delivery: Online Distance Learning
Late Entrants: If this course is not full by the start date then late entrants will be accepted for up to two weeks after the start of the course. As a late entrant you can choose to catch up on the material you have missed or you can skip the missed weeks and concentrate on the material at the point where you join the course, but unfortunately we cannot offer fee reductions or course extensions for late entrants.

Please note: All courses are subject to sufficient numbers of students registering before they are confirmed as running. Therefore, after booking your place you are advised not to purchase any texts until you have received confirmation that the course is running.

This course was previously offered by the University of Exeter*. If you studied it with the University of Exeter* you might not wish to study it again with Learn for Pleasure as although we have revised and updated our courses where necessary, it will likely be substantively the same.


This course will teach you about the identification, habitat and behaviour of birds, and also looks at UK bird populations, field studies and surveys. It is designed for students who are new to the subject while offering the experienced the opportunity to enhance their birding skills, especially in the field.

Considering birds and their lives may lead you to thinking about certain environmental issues, and there will be moments when you are challenged to think about conservation and biodiversity issues.

You may have a project in mind concerning birds. For example:

  • You may wish to write about your local birds or local nature reserve.
  • You might be thinking about doing bird surveys for one of the bird charities, for example, RSPB or BTO.
  • You might wish to study biodiversity or conservation issues concerning birds.
  • Naturally, you can simply gain pleasure from seeing the birds and discussing your observations.

This course is designed for us to discuss ideas and it can be tailored to meet your particular needs.

The course material focuses on bird life within the United Kingdom and therefore is more suited to students in the UK who will be able to actively follow discussions from their everyday observations.

Course content is the same whether the course runs in Autumn, Spring or Summer but the online discussions will reflect the UK season during which the course takes place.

However, we welcome students from all over the world who would like to learn about this subject, and we have had students from Europe and further afield in the past. While the course material will be UK focused, the tutor will be happy to advise international students on a suitable guide book for their area.

Syllabus Plan

Bird Life is made up of 10 units in five blocks, including online discussion of your observations and our comments and the answers to some of the questions given in the units.

Bird identification

  • Unit 01 – Bird appearance
  • Unit 02 – Bird behaviour

Birds in their habitats

  • Unit 03 – Listen for birds
  • Unit 04 – Bird habitats

Observing bird behaviour

  • Unit 05 – Observe behaviour
  • Unit 06 – Speciation

Field work

  • Unit 07 – Field observations
  • Unit 08 – Field studies

What is happening to birds?

  • Unit 09 – Active field work
  • Unit 10 – Caring for birds?

Course Content in Depth

Week 01: Bird Appearance

To begin, we will examine what do we do when we go bird watching. Identifying the appearance of birds is often understood to be at the heart of ornithology.  So, we will establish the key questions such as: How big is it? What field markings identify it? Where is it and what is it doing?

Week 02: Bird Behaviour

Next, we can understand why a bird behaves as it does by observing how and where it lives. That is by observing the whole living bird in its environment – its plumage, song, movements, habitat, food, breeding and lifespan. This will reveal the character of a species and identify it.

Week 03: Listen for Birds

Listening for birds is a very important feature of being a good birder. You can identify particular species, and their behaviour, from hearing their voice – their calls and song. We shall focus on this important aspect this week.

Week 04: Bird Habitats

The type of bird observed in any place depends mostly on the habitat, and the environment greatly influences where birds live and survive. So in this Unit we will encourage you to understand your patch which will then assist in your understanding of what, and why, birds live there.

Week 05: Observe Behaviour

As we progress we note that bird identification generally involves us in being aware of the physical aspects of each bird we see. So we will study this now in the context of bird movement, seasonal habits and behaviour. The key to identification is not simply noting a bird’s appearance, or ticking off the number of species we have seen, but to begin to understand their lives.

Week 06: Speciation

In this week we study speciation, which is the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution; whereby a species is a population, or series of populations, which interbreed freely, but not with those of other species. We can then consider naming them.

Week 07: Field Observations

We take to the field now to understand the status and distribution of a species – breeding species and regular migrants. Population numbers come from census work and movements involve migratory patterns and seasonality of movement – where and when rather than how. We learn how to count them here.

Week 08: Field Studies

Keeping in the outdoors, this unit explores the typical activities which build up field work skills for bird surveys. You will become aware that birds are fairly easy to census because they are well known, recognisable and relatively straightforward to find, see and, hopefully, listen for. Importantly, descriptions of habitat, and the changes which occur to them, also feature strongly in surveying birds in the wild landscape.

Week 09: Active Field Work

Visiting Nature Reserves is excellent to begin good bird watching. However, there are many more options for you to choose – from simply being aware of birds as you walk in the countryside, or even in the town, to selecting a target species which you want to see and then making plans to find it. Even your back yard is sound, so we will participate in a group exercise towards our own E-Learning garden bird survey.

Week 10: Caring for Birds

Finally, we appreciate that this course has highlighted the essential areas where we can all become involved in understanding birds better. But at its heart is the development of your personal understanding of bird life in a changing world, as well as your respect for birds as wild things. So to conclude the process we consider some ethical issues.

Learning Outcomes

This course will help students to acquire:

  • An understanding of how to identify birds through basic elements of bird biology and behavioural patterns
  • Knowledge of the procedures to follow when constructing a case study of a bird species
  • Experience of noting changes in bird numbers over time and sufficient understanding to participate in informed discussion about the range of possible causes
  • Observational skills and critical insight into how to evaluate these observations
  • Experience of analysing records and notes through weighting evidence and making reasoned value judgements