American Birding Podcast



Bird Brained


It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking
open the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above
I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

Pablo Neruda


New ABA president Jeff Gordon has challenged members to define what the group would like to be when it grows up. The first respondent, Ted Floyd, parenthetically remarked that: 

…as to the estimates of 141 million birders, let's not go there… Anyhow, I'm reasonably confident of at least 100,000. 

I insist. Let's go there.

Pablo Neruda, Bird PersonFirst, a warning. The next two lengthy articles were first published on my personal blog. Since the topic has resurfaced, however, I have reworked them to be published here. Hopefully those of you interested in this topic will file these away for use in similar circumstances.

In my profession I regularly mull over the various surveys and estimates of bird people. I have conducted surveys, and have studied the same. I must admit that I have never seen as estimate of birders as high as 141 million, not even the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment (NSRE). I also do not recall ever seeing one low-balled like Ted's. What gives?

Ted can answer for himself, but I suspect that he means that there are around 100,000 Americans that approach birds who look like himself. If so, perhaps the ABA does have about a 20% market share. But is that the entire universe of bird people, or myopia? I believe that latter, and I will explain why.

The first challenge in estimating the size of any market is to first define it and delineate the boundaries. If I want to sell duck calls to duck hunters, I can easily draw a circle around the market by looking at the sales of hunting licenses and duck stamps. But what if I want to sell $1500 binoculars to birders? I would first need to determine the population of those who either own binoculars in that price range or have a desire to own them. 

A delineation of the birding market is not easy. Birders don't buy licenses. Birders may buy a duck stamp, but never hunt (and therefore the market of duck hunters defined by sales of duck stamps is inflated). A bird person may live next door, date your daughter, or drink a beer with you after work; you won't know. Bird people are anonymous and invisible, remaining transparent unless outed by their binoculars, bird feeders, or the I Brake for Birds! sticker on the Isuzu in the driveway. Bird people are everywhere yet nowhere. Bird people are everyone yet no one.

How does birding benefit from underestimating its numbers? Does anyone believe that the Tea Party is worried about accurate estimates of its reach? Political power is all about body count. How many birding bodies are there? Who are these bird people?

To know more about bird people, let's begin with a definition of who they are or aren't. Bird people find their way to nature through wild birds. We feed birds, garden for birds, photograph birds, and watch birds. We collect bird books, photographs, and sounds, and some of us collect the names of the birds we have seen on a list.

Henry David Thoreau, Bird PersonExcept for the shared interest in birds, little else is common among bird people. Although we number in the tens of millions, we are not a cohesive, delineated group. While other recreations have sharp edges and defined borders (you become a hunter the day your dad buys you a gun and a license), there is no single act that welcomes you to our bird fraternity. Our recreation is amorphous, porous, and pliable. Each bird person negotiates an individual relationship with both the resource and the recreation.

Let's chew on that for a moment. At what point do you officially become a birder? There is no ritual, no initiation, no secret handshake, no certificate of membership, no license, no permit. You are a birder the moment you decide your are, without fanfare, without celebration. In a private, personal moment, you decide to accept the title. Bird people may or may not be birders, or birdwatchers. Yet for many, there is a definitive, revelatory moment when becoming part of the birder tribe is desirable.

We count hunters and anglers by licenses sold. How do we count bird people? Poorly, I am afraid. The most commonly quoted survey is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) titled Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis. According to the agency, in 2006 there were 48 million people in the U.S. age 16 or older who watched, fed, and/or photographed birds. Relatively equal numbers of men (46%) and women (54%) participated. Almost 42 million watched, fed, and photographed birds around the home, with around 20 million traveling away from home to enjoy birds (an increase of 8% over the 2001 survey). Keep an eye on that last number; it will be important later in this article.

The USFWS uses a conservative approach by limiting the survey. The agency is interested only in those who either closely observe birds around the home, or who take trips more than one mile from home for the primary purpose of watching, feeding, or photographing birds. Incidentally seeing a hummingbird while mowing the yard is not considered "watching." Even so, this definition of bird people encompasses 21% of the American population, or 1 out of every 5 Americans. In comparison, the PGA estimates that there are 27 million golfers in the U.S., marginally over half of those who find their way to nature through birds rather than birdies.

John James Audubon, Bird PersonThe USFWS is not the only organization counting bird people. The most conservative (i.e., lowest) estimates are from the Outdoor Foundation (OF) and their Outdoor Recreation Participation Report. According to the OF, 13.3 million American watched birds more than 1/4 mile away from home or a vehicle in 2009. As above, remember that last number. With the USFWS, you must leave home for the primary purpose of birding. With the OF, you must leave home and car. If you drive to Chincoteague NWR and only watch birds from your car along the nature drive, you would not count.

Finally we have the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment (NSRE) to consider. I have worked with this survey for years, and I am comfortable with what it can and cannot provide. The NSRE offers the broadest view of recreation, and therefore I believe that their estimates are most accurate in delineating the softest edges of a given recreation. According to the NSRE, there are over 81 million American who watch birds, no matter how casually. Rather than considering this an estimate of a defined population, I would prefer treating this more as a potential market. I do not believe that the vast majority of these 81 million Americans consider themselves to be birders or birdwatchers, but nevertheless they are finding their way to nature (no matter how circuitous the route) through birds.

Let's summarize. There are over 80 million bird people in the U.S., according to the NSRE. Around 40 million closely watch, feed, and photograph birds around their homes, and around 20 million travel away from home for the primary purpose of watching, feeding, and photographing birds. 

There are numerous ways to segregate this birder market. Surveys have looked at avidity, commitment, investment, motivation, field time, and skill (to name a few) to tease out the differences in this immense population. A few of these have been tested for statistical validity (see this article for an example). 

In the next installment I will present a typology of birding. Yet I would like to finish this article by mentioning another way to look at our recreation. I believe that there are acquisitive birders, and inquisitive birders. The absolutes are at the poles, and the population is spread along a continuum. Most bird people are some combination of the two.

Acquisitive bird people are interested in the possessions won or purchased through birding. Acquisitive birders are listers, competitors, photographers (constantly posting their latest photos on the birding lists), or gear collectors. Acquisitive birders care a great deal about identifying birds. In acquisitive birding, seeing and identifying a new bird is the primary method of scoring. Acquisitive birders compete. Acquistive birders possess.

Inquisitive birders, however, are disinterested in the competative aspects of birding. Inquisitive birders are consumed by the bird, its habitats, its environment, and how it fits into a broader world. Inquistive birders search for the whole.

Another way of describing the differences is to look at the way we think. Acquistive birders are left brain, while inquistive birders are right brain. Consider the following illustration.

ImagesAre you a left-brain or a right-brain birder? I suspect that most of the ABA membership consists of left-brain, acquistive types, and the magazines and the programs reflect this (although certainly not exclusively). Listing is a left-brain, acquistive activity. Can you think of a more left-brain publication than North American Birds? What about the Big Year extravaganza?  Or what about the ABA Checklist (sans Hawaii), or the annual Big Day/List Report (a list of lists)?

Yet I suspect (this is an educated guess, not a survey result) that the vast majority of the tens of millions of bird people are right-brain, inquistive types. These bird people may not find much in the ABA that would draw them to join. These bird people have no interest in approaching birds objectively (they get enough of this at work or school). Right-brain birders are subjective, and are far more interested in the entire nature and outdoor experience than in precisely which tail feather pattern indicates which wood warbler.They are searching for soul, and are finding facts.

Freeman Tilden is one of the fathers of interpretation. Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage is as honored among interpreters as Peterson's first field guide is among birders. Tilden's second principle of interpretation is reveal, to uncloak the meaning behind the factual facade. To focus only on the facts, only on the field marks, is to deprive the bird of life and to deprive the seeker of a revelation.

a wild song,
a waterfall,
it's a bird.
from a throat
smaller than a finger
can the waters
of this song fall? 

 From Ode to Birdwatching by Pablo Neruda