MCCS 0513: The Ecology and Conservation of Migratory Birds


Dr. Brandt Ryder shows the molt pattern of a captured bird during the 2014 course.

Migratory passerines travel annually between breeding and wintering locations, often traveling thousands of kilometers. The biology behind these behaviors represents some of the most complex and exciting, yet least understood phenomena known to science. Understanding the linkages between these seasonal events can have important implications for population dynamics, as well as conservation and management strategies. The research programs of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at SCBI cover the ecology and evolution of migration, migratory connectivity, breeding and non-breeding life history, population dynamics, and the ecological services that migratory birds provide. This two-week course is designed to capitalize on this expertise to teach conservation professionals and field scientists the most current methods in the research of bird migration including theoretical concepts, field and laboratory methods, data analysis and applied conservation strategies.

A VHF telemetry transmitter is attached to a resident Gray Catbird during the 2014 course.

A VHF telemetry transmitter is attached to a resident Gray Catbird during the 2014 course.

Field sessions will involve training in avian sampling techniques including: mist-netting, banding, aging and sexing, tissue sampling, and distance sampling. Participants will conduct daily, early morning three-hour mist-netting sessions. A tracking module will include stable isotope geochemistry, geolocator deployment and analysis, and field radio-telemetry. Full modules will focus on analysis of mark-recapture data in rmark, and distance sampling analysis using program DISTANCE. R packages used in the analysis of isotope, geolocator, and standard telemetry data will also be demonstrated. Lecture topics will include: migratory connectivity, seasonal interactions, radar ornithology, life-cycle analyses, overwinter ecology, applied genetics, ecophysiology, threats to migration, and applied conservation strategies. Finally, participants will learn to prepare museum study skins of bird specimens. SCBI scientists will lead the course, and guest lecturers from local hot spots of migratory bird work will provide students a glimpse into exciting, ongoing research and conservation efforts.

Analytical modules will be spread throughout the course and will rely heavily on use of the program R. Participants will be provided with resources to introduce themselves to (or refresh their memory of) R before arriving to the course. All participants are therefore expected to be familiar with basics of programming in R before arriving to the course.

Applicants should have previously completed college-level courses in General Biology, Introductory Statistics, and Ornithology. Applicants should have also completed coursework in at least one of the following: General Ecology, Evolution, Behavioral Ecology, Conservation Biology, Wildlife Ecology or Vertebrate Anatomy/Physiology.

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Praise for the course:

“The learning experiences were non-stop on this course! The lecturers are at the top of their game and communicated effectively. The balance of class time, field work and lab sessions was great and the practical application really facilitated learning. – Dale Wright, Regional Conservation Manager: Western Cape, BirdLife South Africa.

“What I liked most about the course was listening to diverse instructors who have spent a big part of their lives working with migratory birds talk about challenges of conserving migratory birds and how we can overcome these challenges through research, advocacy and involving citizens or communities.” Josephine Afema, PhD candidate, Washington State University, USA

“…this course provides an excellent foundation for conducting state of the art and high quality field ornithological studies.” – Course participant, 2014

“One of the best graduate courses I have ever taken. The teachers are excellent professionals and the course content is all what you need to learn to do good research with passerine migratory birds. I truly recommend it, it is great experience.” – Course participant, 2014



The next offering of this course has not yet been confirmed.


Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia

Application Procedure

Applications are not currently being accepted for this course.

Course Costs

The total cost for this course is $2925.50 (Course fee of $2100 + Housing and Dining Package of $825.50). Those applying as citizens of “less-developed” nations qualify for a reduced course fee of $1200, making the total cost including housing (shared double room) and dining package $2025.50. Click HERE to check if your country of citizenship qualifies you for the reduced course fee. Your total course payment includes:

  • Registration fees
  • Instruction, course manual, textbooks and other course materials
  • Pick-up and drop-off at Dulles International airport, and transportation for course activities
  • Daily full-service buffet at the SMSC Dining Commons – Dining begins with dinner on Sunday September 13 and ends with brunch on Saturday September 26th.
  • Housing at the SMSC Residential Facility, including a shared room with bathroom (single rooms available at extra cost) – Lodging begins Sunday September 13 and check out is Saturday September 26th.


Scholarships are available on a competitive basis for eligible international applicants. Click HERE for more information on scholarships.


Due to early morning field activities, commuting to this course is not encouraged. Special permission must be sought from the instructor.

For more information