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Biology of Birds

Module titleBiology of Birds
Module codeBIO2439
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Andrew McGowan (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Birds are one of the world’s best loved animal groups and are often what attracted us most to a degree and career in zoology, ecology or conservation. In this module, we expand on the understanding you gained during your Stage 1 lectures by first building an understanding of avian characteristics and diversity. We then explore the various aspects of the life of birds from nest construction, through egg production and incubation to song and mating and dispersal strategies. We will use case studies to illustrate specific processes, often focusing on the unusual and exceptional. In the lab we will investigate the functionality of nest construction and explore the roles of crypsis and the sensory systems employed by birds. Furthermore, you will be encouraged to use the coursework to develop your own interest in bird biology and enhance your transferable skills that will better equip you to apply the lessons you have learned to practical situations in the workplace.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will build on your knowledge gained during Stage 1 BIO1419 Introduction to Vertebrate Zoology and lay a foundation for Stage 3 modules and field courses. Because the content spans evolution, behaviour and conservation this module will knit well with other Stage 2 modules and will suit all degree pathways. The aim is that you will establish a firm knowledge of the evolution and classification of birds and then explore avian diversity in form, function and behaviour. You will learn using case studies about the insights that birds provide into evolution and ecology in a wider context and will include feeding, avian architecture, mating, reproductive systems and strategies, sensory systems, migration, conservation and management.

This module will provide a grounding in topics relevant to employment in research, environmental management and regulation. The module builds on basic aspects of biology, then develops these, extending through to understanding of complex management and conservation scenarios. By completing the assessments you will develop the following skills that will transfer to future challenges in the workplace:

  • Independently formulating ideas, data handling and experimental design and testing/evaluating these.
  • Identifying, selecting and using information from disparate, and sometimes conflicting, sources to produce reports.
  • Constructing a presentation for the purpose of clear and succinct technical communication.

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by module staff, such as work on nest building (McGowan), sensory ecology (Trosicanko) and migration (Bearhop). Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through the laboratories and following write up phases of the lab reports.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe the evolution and major classifications of birds
  • 2. Explain in some detail a range of case studies of avian diversity, form, function and behaviour
  • 3. Exhibit confidence in safely handling, identifying and learning from avian specimens and the materials they produce
  • 4. Explain the role and importance of evolution and adaptation to contemporary biological challenges effectively

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Describe in some detail essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 6. Identify critical questions from the literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for addressing specific research problems in biosciences
  • 8. With some guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 9. Describe and evaluate approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Develop, with some guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with valid conclusions
  • 11. Communicate ideas, principles and theories fluently using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Collect and interpret appropriate data and complete research-like tasks, drawing on a range of sources, with limited guidance
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to professional and practical skills, and apply own evaluation criteria
  • 14. Reflect effectively on learning experiences and summarise personal achievements
  • 15. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Lectures will cover the basics of evolution and the classification of birds, establishing a foundation of evolution, classification of avian diversity in form, function and behaviour and building on this with a range of case studies. Later lectures will cover in more detail the major aspects of the different life stages of birds from attracting a mate through nest building, incubation and chick rearing and the strategies and sensory systems employed to ultimately aid dispersal and migration. In each case we will identify and discuss in more detail major topics of ecology, behaviour and management.

Practicals will cover aspects of avian behaviour and reproduction using specimens, dissection and online technology. In the laboratory we will use nest collection, the dissection of nests, and data collected from a local breeding population of tits. We will then explore how the quality of nest construction can impact reproductive success and the role of sensory system exploitation and crypsis. You will present a recently published aspect of avian ecology in groups.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching14Lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching10Practicals covering aspects of avian behaviour and reproduction using specimens, dissection and online technology
Guided independent study126Reading and preparation for lectures and group presentation, write-up of practicals and assignments and preparation for assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lectures and practical sessionsOngoing throughout the moduleAllOral
Group presentations on a recently published aspect of avian ecology10 minutes1-2, 4-15Written and oral feedback
Practical report 1 completed after the practical session on nest construction, ectoparasites and breeding success, with data collected during practical4 pages1-12, 15Written and oral feedback to the whole class

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
End of module Essay601500 words1-2, 4-12Written
Practical report 2 completed after the practical session on avian sensory systems and crypsis with data collected during practical 404 pages1-12, 15Written and oral feedback to the whole class


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
End of module EssayEssay1-2, 4-12August assessment period
Practical report 2 completed after the practical session on avian sensory systems and crypsis with data collected during practical Practical report 2 on avian sensory systems and crypsis. Data will be provided.1-12, 15August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Hansell (2000) Bird nests and Construction Behaviour. Cambridge University Press.
  • Stevens (2013) Sensory Ecology, Behaviour, and Evolution. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10: 019960178X | ISBN-13: 978-0199601783

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Birds, ecology, evolution, conservation, adaptation, morphology, behaviour, taxonomy, systematics, identification, management

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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