Humboldt State University

Matthew Johnson, Ph.D.

707 826 3218

Wildlife 365 - Course Syllabus

Course Goals

What is education for? Education is not just for stuffing our heads full of facts. Education is for helping us all learn how to live in our places well and contribute to healthy, resilient, prosperous, and just communities. Part of living well in our places includes actively working to understand local flora and fauna -- the life surrounding us -- and our role in its conservation. So, in this course, there are two main sets of goals. The first set is made up of goals we all share; we all teach each other. These goals are to further develop our critical thinking skills, to better understand our places (Humboldt Co.!!) and ourselves, and to learn to use new knowledge wisely.

The second set of goals is unique to this course, and here I assume more of a teaching role, but we still learn together. These goals are to familiarize ourselves with avian biology, including anatomy & physiology, behavior, ecology, and evolution. We will focus on local (NW California) birds and their environments.


The texts for this course are the following:

  1. Gill, F. B. 1995. Ornithology, 3rd edition. W. H. Freeman and Co., New York, NY.
  2. A field guide, your choice of three:
    • Nat'l Geographic (3rd ed.)
    • Peterson's Guide to Western Birds
    • The Sibley Guide to Birds (Nat'l Audubon Society)
  3. Ornithology Course Packet

All of the above are available in the bookstore.


There is a lot of awesome information about birds....and Gill's text is we will be truckin' through lectures! To help you out, I'll post complete lecture notes on the web after they are delivered in class. Just click here. They will come up as Microsoft Word files, so you can add to them as you wish. Sorry, I can't get the overheads on-line (most of them come from your text though).


Labs in this course will be comprised of four exercises: (1) in lab study of species identification, (2) in-lab exercises on aspects of avian biology (anatomy, foraging behavior), (3) field trips to nearby areas to observe birds, and (4) a research project. There is also a voluntary field trip (1 day) aboard the Coral Sea, HSU's research vessel, in which we will search for pelagic (off-shore) birds and other wildlife. Forty people can fit on the boat, so the trip sign-up is first-come-first-serve. We will announce trip dates (2 of them) in class. If weather is fine both days, then we can take those on the waiting list on the second day. All labs excluding the pelagic trip are mandatory.

Field trip labs will meet at the forestry parking lot. This is on 17th Street near where it intersects Union Street. Transportation will be by bus. These labs all start at 7 am. Birds rise early, after all. For field trips you need the following: field notebook (e.g., write-in -the-rain), rain gear, outdoor clothing (including footwear!), binoculars, field guide, and high spirits in wet weather. All labs are held regardless of weather. All binoculars need to be checked out of the wildlife stockroom (rm. 168C) the day before the trip. The pelagic trip will not meet in the forestry parking lot; instead, we will meet at the docking area in Eureka (details will be provided in class).

All in-lab labs meet in WFB 230. Most of these labs will involve self-guided study of specimens. For this class, you are required to learn to identify approximately 250 bird species. You are only required to know their common names, but you must also learn some Families and Orders within the Class Aves. The higher taxonomy as well as a list of the species you need to know is in this course packet. We have a dissection of Rock Doves scheduled for the second week of lab, for which you will need a rudimentary dissection kit (scalpel, probe, scissors, pins).

Lab Project

Your lab project should examine some aspect of avian biology, management, or conservation. Each student must submit a written report worth 100 points.

Project Types and Topics

There are three types of projects you may choose, listed in order of popularity:

  1. participate in collecting field data for both of the class projects provided, and then write up the results of one of them as a scientific manuscript like those published in The Condor or the Journal of Wildlife Management, (2) examine the literature concerning a topic in ornithology of your choosing and write an extensive review paper like those published in Current Ornithology, or (3) conduct a project of your own design that is consistent with the goals of this course and your interests.
  2. The two class projects are:

    • Black Phoebe territorial behavior experiment
    • Food supply and duck communities at the Arcata Marsh

    If you choose this option, you will collect data for both projects, but choose only one to write-up. I highly recommend that you choose this option if you have not previously completed a scientific research course, such as Wildlife 311.

  3. A review paper requires an in-depth literature search, and extensive reading and summarizing. This option might be a good one if you have already mastered short field projects and wish to develop another skill, or if you like birds but hate to be outside (there is a legitimate role for library biologists these days!), or if you have a bird topic you wish to research in-depth to prepare you for future field work (as might be the case if you are planning a senior project soon). Here are a few examples:
    • review the factors influencing clutch size in island-nesting seabirds
    • review the theories for the evolution of communal roosts
    • review hypotheses for arboreal vs. cursorial origins of flight
  4. A project of your own design. This option is totally up to you. One good approach is to design (with my help) a field research project that could serve as a pilot study for an upcoming senior project. Another approach is to blend your non-bird interests with the goals of this class for a more personalized project (e.g., if you're into web design, you could work on an on-line ornithology slide show). Other examples include:
    • compare the within-flock positions of various species or age/sex classes
    • compare the foraging behavior of two closely related species, or a single species in two different habitats
    • visit local schools, work with teachers to develop ideas of bird conservation into their curricula, and teach the kids
    • be creative!

With all these options you may be wondering how one set of expectations can apply to all of them. One can't! I have different expectations for each these options; the goal is not to render ourselves robots cranking through the machine of education. The goal is for all of us, me included, to learn as much as we can.

Remember all projects must be approved by Matt. You need to tell me, in my office, which of these options you will pursue by 1/2 February (you also need some preliminary ideas if you plan to do something other than the class projects).

Field Notes

You are required to keep field notes of at least two personal bird-watching outings of your own. These do not need to adhere strictly to Grinnelian journal style. However, they should follow a consistent style (see additional guidelines in this packet), and they should contain explicit, descriptive (quantitative where possible) observations. Your notes will be evaluated twice during the semester.


Your grade will be determined from your performance on the following:

  1. Two midterm lecture exams (100 pts. each)
  2. A comprehensive final lecture exam (150 pts.)
  3. Two lab exams (100 pts. each)
  4. A research paper based on fieldwork conducted during the semester (100 pts.)
  5. Two evaluations of field notes (25 pts. each)

All scores will be combined for a total of 700 points. Final grades will be based on: >90% A; >80% B; >70% C; >60% D; and < 60 F; I do assign + and - grades.

All late assignments will lose 10% of their total (1 grade) per day. However, we both want to see your best product, so I'll consider extensions if you see me before the deadline and demonstrate progress and need. Missing assignments get zero points.

If you turn in your project report by 29/30 March, we’ll give it a “free read” and provide feedback and a “would-be grade.” You can then make changes and turn the final product in on the regular due date (19/20 April). These early reports can be a little rough, but they must be complete.