Saturday, September 15, 2012

How many "Birders" are there?

My daughter Victoria will show some occasional interest in birds, but she's more interested in hanging out with dear-old-dad than anything.
The preliminary report of the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation was released in August. Some of the interesting bird observer statistics include: 46.7 million people in the United States observed, photographed, or fed birds. 17.8 million people observed birds away-from-home.

Thinking about those 17.8 million people who observed birds away from home...I just don't think that there are that many people "like me" out there - folks specifically looking for birds, photographing birds, avidly keeping lists of what they see, traveling to see birds, and chasing regional rarities - you know, the traditional definition of a "birder". Sure, loads of outdoor enthusiasts including hikers, anglers and hunters may notice and appreciate birds while they are enjoying their primary activity; they may even know their correct identification, but they really aren't avid birders like me. I'm guessing that there are probably only 50,000 to 100,000 people in the United States that are "birders" according to the traditional definition. This number is based simply on my perceptions of the birding community and can in no way be backed up with facts or statistics.

The most exciting thing about that 17.8 million people who observed birds away-from-home and the 46.7 million people who say that they've observed, fed, or photographed birds are that they are all potential "birders". There are many ways in which one might enjoy seeing birds, and one way is not morally superior to another. If backyard bird feeding is as far as you want to delve into this recreational activity, more power to ya! Not everyone needs to be a birder, but I think we can certainly help many many more, perhaps millions more bird-appreciators become fully fledged birders. Even if we could inspire just 10% of those folks who observed birds away from home, that'd be 1.5 million plus added to our ranks. Should they enjoy the pastime enough, they may also become "member-investors" in organizations like the American Birding Association, and local bird clubs or societies. My hope is to see the ABA as that one great unifying voice of birders in our hemisphere. Wouldn't it be great for birders to have a little more clout?!

So how do we do go about inspiring another 1.7 million birders in the United States, and millions more around the world? Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Don't be afraid to talk about your birding adventures with people in your social circles.

How often do co-workers ask how your weekend was and you skip over the exciting birding part and only tell them the boring stuff about doing your mundane household chores. Come on! Come out of the birding closet! Birding is fun and exciting! Plus being a bit nerdy in today's American culture is pretty cool and more socially acceptable than ever before. I find that most people I associate with are fascinated by birds and by my knowledge and experience with them. Most people think optics are cool and they like checking out my bins and scope. Most people are impressed by a decent up-close bird photograph. Your passion for birding is contagious. Spread it like the disease it is!

Once someone expresses interest, invite them to go birding with you. Don't just leave them with an open-ended invitation like "Maybe you could go birding with me sometime." Be specific. "Hey, I'm going to super-awesome-scenic-location-near-us for some birding this Saturday morning at seven. I have an extra quality binocular and I'll buy breakfast. Would you like to go with me?"

2. Park yourself where there are birds and nature enthusiasts and share.

When you are in a natural public place where there are birds to be seen, park yourself there with your binocular, your scope, and maybe your smartphone app or a field guide. When people look at you curiously, quickly invite them over to check out what birds you are seeing. You don't have to overwhelm them with information, but a couple interesting facts combined with your enthusiasm may just spark a new birder. I love that ABA President Jeff Gordon did exactly this during the recent Pledge to Fledge weekend.

I realize, based on my earlier study of Birder Personality Profiles, that for half of you, some of this just strains against your naturally introverted nature. So here's an additional tip that shouldn't be as hard for you to do:

3. Add birding while sharing in your friend's interests.

If you have a friend who is really into hiking, go hiking with them and point out the birds along the way. If your friend is really into photography, go with them and point out the birds you see. Ask them to create an image or two of a particularly cooperative bird. If your friend is into fishing, go fishing with them and point out the birds around you. I've even gone hunting with a couple people and while they hunted for big game with rifles, I was hunting birds with my binocular. They were impressed and interested. Build upon common ground and share your interest in birds without shame or shyness. If they get hooked, great! If not, that's okay too. Still be their friend no matter what.

My friend Jason checking out a Grasshopper Sparrow in Round Valley, Idaho. Jason was interested in birds as a kid, but his passion turned to fishing and hiking. Hanging out with me re-awaken his interest in birds and now he does all three activities, often simultaneously. I get to go with him once in a while too, even though I can't keep pace when he's hiking. He even taught me to fly-fish. Now, at least one of his eight daughters seems to show a lot of interest in birding and all of his kids enjoyed a recent visit to the Idaho Bird Observatory.


  1. Great suggestions, Robert. You're an excellent ambassador for birding.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I think the same of you!

  2. Great post Robert. You've got some great insights and great advice here.

  3. One way to estimate the number of birders in the US would be to look at subscriptions to local/regional bird listserves.

    Of course some people may be subscribed to multiple ones (like I get Carolinas and VA), so you would do some double-counting, but it would be a start.

    1. Thanks Scott. I have thought about the number of listserv subscribers extensively too. Also bird related magazine subscribers. While it may not be completely accurate, it is a good start as you say. I look at the Idaho listserv, 552 members. The population of Idaho is about 1.6 million. That is .04% of the population. If I assume that the national population of birders is similar to Idaho's, then there are 125,000 people subscribing to listservs in the United States and they probably meet the definition of a birder, though they may not all be as avid as I am. So not too far off my high-end estimate.

      I am however surprised at how many birders I have met in the field that aren't participants in the listserv...or maybe they are, but never post anything.

  4. Excellent post, Robert! I think you have offered some wonderful suggestions. While birding a few days ago, I ran into a new birder. Every bird she saw was a life bird. She was especially enthusiastic about her new hobby. I pointed out several new colorful warblers to her and she was giddy with excitement, which in turn, delighted me greatly. On the same day a couple who were out walking for exercise, were curious as to what I was look at in the shrubs. I pointed out the gorgeous Northern Parula and they were stunned that such a pretty bird could be seen in the city of Chicago. They oohed and ahhed and then continued on walking, though I noticed they kept looking into the shrubs. I assumed they were hoping to spot more pretty birds.

    1. Julie, what an awesome advocate for birds you are!!! Keep 'em oohing and ahhing.

  5. It is a blast to help a new person get started in birding. Every bird they see is a life bird. Their excitement is contagious. Even common birds that us jaded and experienced birders don't pay much attention too -- are gorgeous! Blue Jays, Cardinals, Warblers, Mallards, Wood Ducks... Gives you back some of your old perspective.
    As to estimating the number of avid birders, I think there was a survey done of ABA members a few years ago. I'll see if I can look that up. The number of people who pay to subscribe to ABA, Birding, or Birdwatcher's Digest magazines might be as good a number as any.
    The federal survey that you cite at the beginning lumps together watching both birds and wildlife together, so it is a pretty wide net, and a low bar (at least once in a year). But 30% of all US adults are estimated to do it near their home, and 9% travel to another location to watch. Totals to an estimated 50 Trillion Dollars!!, which I've been told exceeds all professional sports, for example. (could include buying bird seed, cameras, binoculars, travelling, airfare, lodging, meals, etc.)
    Good conversation!

  6. If we all turn just one person on to birds and they turn one person on and so forth we can have a Birding Nation!