Ornithology - BEN102

Home Study course in Ornithology with ACS Distance Education

This course approaches the study of different groups of birds in a systematic way. If you learn to understand how birds are classified, and the differences between broad groups such as “Passerines” and “Non-Passerines”, you can apply that knowledge to identify and study birds anywhere in the world.

Every country has its own unique range of indigenous (native) birds, and introduced ones as well. To develop your knowledge of ornithology, learn to observe birds as you move about your world every day. The course notes are a great foundation for your study; but you will build on that with research and guidence from your tutor.


The course consists of nine lessons.

1.  Classification and Introduction to Bird watching.

  • Nature and scope of ornithology (over 9,000 species)
  • Place of Birds in Nature
  • Bird Classification (Aves, Ratitae, Carinate)
  • Use of common names and scientific names
  • Fossil or Extinct Birds
  • Classes and Sub Classes
  • Comparing characteristics of different Super orders
  • Comparing characteristics of all major bird Families
  • Resources for further information
  • Bird Watching equipment

2.  The Biology of Birds.

  • Anatomical features
  • Skeleton
  • Feathers
  • Feather Colour
  • Wings
  • Wing Types (elliptical, high speed, long soaring, high lift)
  • Legs and Feet
  • Beaks and Bills
  • Internal Structure
  • Respiration
  • Excretion
  • Digestion
  • Circulation
  • Senses
  • Avian Behaviours (Flight, Diving, Reproduction, Courtship, Bonding, Territoriality, Nesting)
  • Formation of Eggs and Hatching
  • Feeding
  • Vocalisations
  • Migration
  • Habitats

3.  Common and Widespread Land Birds.

  • Eagles and Relatives … Carthatidae (New World vultures, condors)
  • Pandionidae (osprey)
  • Accipitridae (hawks, eagles, kites)
  • Sagittariidae (secretary bird)
  • Falconidae (falcons, caracaras)
  • Crows and their Relatives
  • Butcher birds, Currawongs and related birds
  • Pigeons (structure, feeding, breeding, types)
  • Doves
  • The Dodo
  • Cuckoos
  • Pest and Introduced Birds (for man countries) … Indian Mynah, Sparrow, Thrush, Starling, etc

4.  Giant Birds and Long Legged Birds

  • Ratitites …Ostrich, Emu, Moa, Rhea, Cassowary, Kiwi, South American Tinamous, extinct giant Elephant bird and Dodo
  • Herons, Storks and relatives

5.  Seabirds and Water birds.

  • Anseriformes … ducks, geese, swans etc
  • Gruiformes …cranes, coots, mud hens, rails
  • Charadriiformes … sandpipers, snipes, curlews, plovers, dotterels, etc
  • Gaviiformes … divers
  • Gulls, Skuas, Auks, Puffins, Terns
  • Tube Nosed Birds
  • Albatrosses
  • Petrels, Storm Petrels and Diving Petrels
  • Pelicans and Relatives
  • Gannets
  • Cormorants
  • Boobies, Frigate Birds, Tropic Birds
  • Penguins

6.  Hunters -Birds of Prey, Owls, and Kingfishers.

  • Eagles
  • Eagle species
  • Hawks
  • Kites
  • Osprey
  • Falcons
  • Vultures
  • Owls
  • Breeding behaviours of birds of prey
  • Kingfishers

7.  Passeriformes.

  • Scope of "songbirds" or "perching birds".
  • Features common to Passeriformes
  • Varieties of Passeriformes (Primitive and Advanced)
  • Muscicapidae … thrush
  • Robins
  • Flycatchers, Larks, Pippits, Wingtails
  • Swallows and Martins; physical characteristics, breeding and nesting
  • Fringilllidae … finches

8.  Other Birds.

  • Parrots … structure, feeding, breeding, species
  • Honeyeaters, Swifts
  • Galliformes … chicken.
  • Other Orders

9.  Attracting, Feeding and Keeping Birds.

  • How plants benefit birds
  • Plants that attract birds
  • Feeding Birds
  • Bird Care …parasites, catching and handling, caring for a sick bird
  • Common Ailments

The aim of this course is to introduce you to many interesting and diverse bird species, and their physiology and habitats; but in a way that gives you a framework upon which to build your knowledge and understanding as you move on beyond your studies. You will learn a wide variety of things, through a combination of things such as reading, interacting with tutors, undertaking research and practical tasks, including observing birds.


Contact a Birdwatching Club or organisation in your own country, or region of the world, and find out what services and information they offer. You may locate groups on the internet, or listed under clubs and organisations in the Yellow Pages section of your phone book. You could contact them on the phone, or by email, by letter; or by attending a meeting.

Write a brief history of the evolution of birds (150-300 words). Include mention of species that have become extinct and give reasons as to why you think this occurred.

Discuss the breeding cycle of one particular bird species (of your own choosing). Identify any traits or behavioural patterns that are unique to this species

Select 6 different birds from groups studied in this lesson, and research each different bird using any resources you have available to you, such as textbooks, the internet, libraries, etc. Write a paragraph describing each of the six birds you selected, giving a detailed description of their external appearance, together with details of their distribution, structure, feeding habits and breeding. If possible, focus on any birds from each group that inhabit or regularly migrate to your region.

Duration   100 hours

  • To discuss the study of birds, including bird taxonomy
  • Describe anatomy and the physical characteristics of birds.
  • Differentiate between different groups of birds, wherever you are, anywhere in the world.
  • Describe and discuss:
    • a range of water birds and sea birds.
    • common and widespread land birds.
    • range of different flightless and long legged birds
    • different birds of prey.
    • different Passeriformes.
    • a range of parrots and other birds
  • Explain domestication of birds and the methodology and implications of attracting and feeding wild birds.
  • For amateur or aspiring professional bird watchers; or anyone working with birds. Learn to identify and understand the habits of different birds, from water birds and parrots, to town birds and birds of prey.

Because there are so many different birds around the world, this course cannot include examples of a particular bird family from every country. However, the Set Tasks and Assignments at the end of each lesson will give you plenty of scope for focusing on the birds in your region, and learning more about them.

(Extracts from course notes below)

Feather Colour

Feathers are not all the same colour; some may be dull, some brightly coloured, or they may be plain with very complex patterns. The bright colours are sometimes present in unfeathered parts of the birds, such as bills, legs, wattles and bare areas of the skin. These bare areas are usually on the head.

Birds manufacture their own pigments. The brown and black pigments are called melanins. Some red and green pigments are called porphyrins, however most of are the carotenoids (red yellow and orange pigments), which come from the foods which the birds eat. The blue colour does not come from pigments, but from the internal structure of the feathers. The internal structure reflects blue light, but all other components are absorbed by the melanins. The green of feathers is normally the result of yellow pigment and structural blue. Many birds have iridescent colours, and these are mainly structural colours.


Flightless birds are known as ratites. They are defined in the concise Oxford Dictionary as a class of bird having a keel-less breastbone, and being unable to fly. The sternum of ratites is flat. (Ratis in Latin means raft, a boat with no keel).

Flightless birds include:

  • The Ostrich
  • The Emu
  • The Moa
  • The Rhea
  • The Cassowary
  • The Kiwi

Also, the extinct giant Elephant bird. Another bird classified as a ratite is the South American Tinamous, which can fly.

However, all ratites, living and extinct, have the same arrangement of bones in the roof of their mouth. This indicates that all have evolved from a common ancestor, and hence, the name palaeognath (paleo = old, gnath = mouth). Their evolution is believed to have separated from the evolution of Neognaths (all other living birds) about sixty five million years ago. Other ornithologists do not classify ratites as one group at all. Nearly all the ratites live in the Southern Hemisphere, and are believed to have Gondwanaland, the ancient super-continent that included South America, Africa and Madagascar, Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand and the Indian subcontinent, before they floated apart to different areas of the globe. (This is explained by the theory of Continental Drift).

Ratites have been called ‘giant birds’ because most of them are among the world’s largest birds. However, there have also been flying birds that could justifiably be called ‘giant’. For instance, the giant Thunderbird, a flying raptor, existed and was recorded in South America before the 20th century. This bird weighed up to 200 pounds. Also, the kiwi, a ratite, is definitely not a giant bird, but about the size of a chicken..

How the payment Options Work

You can be either pay fees in one or two parts.

  • If paying in 2 parts, the first part is paid on enrolment, and the second part two months later (You are sent a bill when you enrol).
  • If you pay the full fee on enrolment, we offer a discounted fee (commonly around 8% lower)

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