A Glimpse into Brian Olsen’s Avian Biology Course

It is not often you get to watch your passion fly above your head on a daily basis.  But for Brian Olsen, SBE Avian Biology professor, this is precisely the case.  On many occasion, fellow colleagues can find Brian standing in the middle of the Deering parking lot, eyes fixed on the sky waiting for his favorite vertebrate animal to fly by…birds! Olsen is the professor of Bio 434, Avian Biology & Ecology, which entails advanced discussions of the characteristics, functional morphology behavior, evolution, biogeology and ecology of birds.  But this course consists of a much greater purpose; giving its students real applicable skills for their jobs in the future in the field of ecology.  The course contains a lecture, laboratory study, and independent project that work in an integrated way to give students a multidisciplinary approach to the concepts related to Avian Biology.


The purpose of the course is to be able to identify species of birds by sight and sound, and to be able to understand how specific birds are related to each other and how they are adapted to the environment. “I like the lectures because they are a lot of fun.  I love learning about birds. They are unlike any other species on earth…I had heard that this class was the most sought after undergraduate ecology class at UMaine.  I knew that it would be interesting, because I had Brian Olsen as a professor in BIO 100 & 200” explains Dana Freshley, a student studying communication with a minor in biology. This course allows students to see how all the interdisciplinary aspects of an organism’s environment play a role in the interaction of all living organisms.

 “Biology is often taught through reductionism.  Students learn about each system and biological mechanism isolated from all of the other things going on at the same time…The beauty of organismal sciences is that we get to talk about the nexus among the biological sub disciplines using a single organism as a semester long case study…I think that adds a needed flavor to how a student then interprets their other classes” explains Olsen.

In the lab, which is not a requirement, Olsen gives his students exposure to some of the major methods currently used by avian biologists.  These methods provide students with pertinent skills by teaching his students identification skills without relying on a guidebook, or an iPhone, though these things are great resources for ecologist currently.  Along with knowledge of general fieldwork procedure, the course exposes students to Program R (a very common program used by biologists), mist netting and capturing techniques, and how to use the necessary technology for ornithology, such as radio telemetry.  These necessary skills provide students with building blocks for future work with birds in the eastern North America.

Olsen assigns his students a semester long project that will help improve their ability to construct a formal research paper.  Students are able to design a field project, and analyze the data using the Program R mentioned above.  Throughout the semester, students present on their research project, giving them multiple opportunities to receive input from their professor as well as their classmates.  Dana Freshley and India Stewart, both current students in Avian Biology& Ecology, decided to do their research on the American Crow. Their project involves fieldwork in which they visit 6 birding spots a week, testing population habitat as a function of temperature. They will be presenting their results in a few weeks.

Olsen’s love for Avian Studies was sparked during a summer field job he acquired in the summer before his sophomore year college. He became a field site surveyor in the White Mountains, and from this experience his love for avian studies began to emerge. Olsen described his passion for Avian Studies as “A slow growing love.”

“Brian always keeps you alert, attentive, and he uses his sense of humor to teach his class. He always looks at the broader picture of ecology which makes him a great ecologist,” says Dana, a student of Olsen.

Olsen has been a valued member of our SBE Faculty since 2008.  He has been teaching this course for five years, and he is still surprised and delighted by the diverse ways students handle difficult questions.  “I really enjoy watching students grapple with open ended scenarios…when we work on hypothetical applications of biological theory, especially when students construct and defend answers that were far removed from what I expected” said Olsen. Olsen runs a research lab called “The Olsen Lab” with help from several undergraduate and graduate students.  The research he focuses on in his Avian Biology course is not directly correlated to his personal research, though he does recruit potential students for his research in the Olsen Lab.

“In terms of research, I find a deep abiding joy by indulging my own intellectual curiosity and working with graduate students is deeply rewarding…to work with some of the best students form the undergraduate pool …allows for both the teaching relationship and the abilities of the students to grow. It is a pretty awesome experience.”

Good luck to Professor Olsen and his students as they finish up the rest of their semester.