Why this Pre-Med Student is taking Avian Biology

I attend Occidental College–a small, liberal arts school in Los Angeles filled with ambitious students with large life goals to change the world. As a pre-medical student, I often feel like I’m surrounded by classmates who are purely on a track of Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Physics and Chemistry. Not only am I pre-med student, I’m also a Kinesiology major–a major that is ironically underrepresented in the pre-med community at Oxy.

So it must sound extra weird to know that I’m also taking a class called Avian Biology.

Birds. 

Not only am I the only non-Biology major in this class, I must be one of very few, if not the only, Kinesiology major to have ever taken this class. Despite Avian Biology being an upper division, 300-level class, there are no requirements beyond Introductory Biology classes. (A list of upper division Biology classes that anyone can take at Oxy as long as they’ve taken one or two Introductory Biology classes can be found at the bottom of this post.)

But why in the world would a pre-med take Avian Biology? It has nothing to do with my career goals… or so it seems.

Let me entertain you in describing what a typical school day is like. I don’t have a single hour of free time; I’m consistently in class, lab, interning at the hospital, or occupied by an extracurricular activity. I’m often awake until 2am just to wake up at 8am to repeat this cycle. In short, I’m very busy.

But when I don’t have school, I get to walk around campus and listen to birds. I get to hear the call from far away and identify it as a red-shouldered hawk before I can even see it. I hear house finches, California scrub jays, and look for the rufescent underbutt of the California towhee. Bonus points if I’m able to identify the bird without my binoculars because I have poor vision. Sometimes I can’t identify the bird by call or sight, so I record it for later. Extra bonus points if I’m able to get close enough to see some distinguishing features on my iPhone’s video quality.

See, learning to birdwatch has taught me an incredible amount of patience and observation–both of which are necessary to become a successful health professional. As someone who plans to go into Emergency Medicine, arguably one of the most stressful specializations, it’s important for me to learn how to take a deep breath, listen, and observe what is in front of me. To identify the situation–whether it’s a bird or a diagnosis–in real time is an important, but hard-learned skill. However, it’s so incredibly satisfying to identify a new bird for the first time. I’m sure this will also be the case when I’m a doctor.

I love Avian Biology because it helps me develop qualities and virtues that can’t be taught: patience, observation, and persistence. Avian Biology brings me out of the loud space of my computer playing Grey’s Anatomy, and into the quiet outdoors filled only by the chirps, tweets, caws, and psh-psh-psh of birds.

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Admiring a Bald Eagle tending to its young in the San Gabriel Mountains. Felt like such a beginner next to the other birders with their impressive telephoto zoom lenses and telescopes, but still felt very excited anyway. Photo taken by Amanda Zellmer. April 9, 2017

When I inevitably become a hermit during my medical-school years, I know that I can take a walk outside and find peace in being involved in something other than medicine. To quote my professor, “everyone should be familiar with at least one class or family of organism.” I’ve been happy to study humans, but studying birds definitely makes me better at studying humans. I get to take my knowledge of humans and draw connections and analogies when looking at the anatomy and physiology of a bird, which in turn solidifies what I know about humans.  Unlike other organisms that exist in specialized niches, birds are quite literally everywhere. That gives me hope that I can study medicine anywhere in the world, and keep up with this hobby of birdwatching.

So I encourage all pre-meds to explore an interest outside of medicine. I especially encourage my Kinesiology peers to look into a biology class that isn’t required for graduate school. While it might seem daunting to study a subject outside of the normal course load, there’s a reason why these classes do not require upper division courses in order to take them: they are not necessary! And who knows, you might discover you’re way more interested in birds than you thought.

Here are a list of classes anyone can take after only taking one (1) Introductory Biology course:

  • BIO 226 Cell Biology*
  • BIO 250 Plant Form and Function
  • BIO 260 Biodiversity and Organization of Marine Ecosystems
  • BIO 270 Ecology
  • BIO 275 Flora of Southern California
  • BIO 280 Evolutionary Biology

Here’s a list if you’ve taken two (2) Introductory Biology courses:

  • BIO 240 Vertebrate Physiology*
  • BIO 268 Biostatistics*
  • BIO 323 Histology*
  • BIO 350 Microbial Symbiosis*
  • BIO 350 Avian Biology*

*These classes also require CHEM 120 or CHEM 130 as a pre- or co-requisite with BIO 130.