Birding, as a pastime, has been consistently a big (and apparently growing) hobby in the United States for some time now. A lot of people do it. If you have ever chased a truly rare bird, you know what I mean....there are a lot of us. WE ARE EVERYWHERE. There is even a major motion picture about us. Because we, as a group, spend so much money, birders are a force to be reckoned with. The amount of cash that gets dropped every year on optics/cameras/books/fuel/airplane tickets/camping/motels/guided trips/pelagic trips/food/park admissions and, most embarrassingly, birder clothes, must be staggering. Really, we should be forming our own political think-tank and sending our own lobbyists to Capitol Hill...birders, by and large, are not poor people. But I digress....
While there are a lot of us, when you compare the number of hardcore birders to the number of nonbirders out there, it suddenly doesn't seem like we have a such a strong foothold in society. Over the years, I have frequently heard birders asking why there are not more of us. Sure there are a lot of birders out there (it's estimated that 18 million Americans took trips specifically to watch birds in 2001), but if I were to walk down San Francisco's Mission Street this afternoon and pass by 500 people, the chances that I would walk by a single person who gave such a big shit about birds as me would be miniscule.
I have always thought the reasons why there aren't more birders have been glaringly obvious, but since this question gets asked so frequently, The Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders Are People Too!") decided to get involved. This topic has probably been touched on elsewhere in the Birdosphere (maybe on the ABA blog?), but here are my 2 cents....don't forget, you are dealing with Number 7 here.
There are exceptions to every rule here of course, but here you go:
1 - Birding is inherently nerdy. It's just not that cool. If you think otherwise, you are wrong and suffer from acute terminal denial. When an activity is blatantly geeky and way off the mainstream, that will automatically limit who will be interested. A lot of people really, really want to be perceived as cool, and they have no urge to participate in something as bizarre as birdwatching.
2 - The racial composition of birders is predominantly white. I go years at a time without seeing black birders, and there aren't many more latinos either. This makes non-whites considerably less likely to ever be exposed to a birder, let alone try it themselves. It's all about your peers, know what I'm saying?
3 - Birding is NOT youth oriented (see number one). Most big cultural/subcultural trends are started and popularized by relatively young people. The 18-24 age range have the lowest birder turnout of any age bracket, according to one study. Without a bigger youth component, birding can go only so far.
4 - It seems like the birders/birdwatchers I come across are represented by an even sex ratio...but the majority of the so-called "birding elite" seem to consist of males. This probably does not make the birding scene/community as interesting to women, although I don't think it turns them off from the activity itself.
This Burrowing Owl, photographed at California's Salton Sea, probably seems more like a Boring Owl to the American public.
5 - Americans, as a whole, are woefully ignorant of and uninterested in the environment (which probably makes a lot of Republican lawmakers happy). This apathy about the life around us makes it less likely for people to take up birding.
6 - As I mentioned above, most birders are not poor. It can cost a lot of money to do the things birders do. People thinking about getting into the hobby may not have $100 lying around to spend on a book and some cheap binoculars, or to afford the gas it takes to get out of the city to a prime birding destination.
After we bagged a Marin Tufted Duck with spotting scopes, TPAD Dan bagged a coot with his bare hands. It's the best of both worlds. Ok it was already dead but I needed a witty caption.
7 - Aside from looking for plants, mushrooms and herps, I would say that one of the most similar "sports" to birding is hunting. Hunting involves being in nature, birds, looking for specific species, and (in this case, literally) bagging birds. Aside from the obvious fact that you are taking the life of whatever you are looking for, I would say the biggest difference between birding with binoculars and birding with shotguns is the machismo factor. While there certainly is a machismo factor to birding (which usually comes off as pathetic), that is certainly not something that draws people in. With hunting, there is a lot of machismo...driving trucks, shootin' at stuff, killing shit. This machismo factor can appeal to both genders, which is ostensibly confusing but undeniably true. Now don't get me wrong....I am really, really happy birding isn't a machismo-oriented thing, but I think the relative lack of it contributes to people unwilling to try it.
8 - People who dwell in big urban areas probably do not have nature and wildlife on the brain very much. A lot of people I know (nonbirders) seem to think about pigeons and gulls once in a while and not much else. Of course there is a lot more wildlife/birdlife that can be found in our big cities, but nonbirders typically aren't even aware of that. How can you be interested in birds when you don't believe you can go someplace nearby and see some?
9 - Not only is birdwatching inherently nerdy, birders themselves don't really help create a very good image for our pastime. I have a lot of weird fucking people in my life, and a scary proportion of them are birders.
Your run-of-the-mill Common Raven is probably more intelligent than your cat, dog, and toddler combined. But everything has a weakness...this bird's was dog food. Fort Funston, San Francisco, CA.
10 - A widely perceived notion in the public (this includes some birders too) is that animals are dumb, not much more than stupid little machines that run on a high-octane blend of hormones and instinct. We live in a very anthropocentric culture, which major religions have played a big role in. People need to be able to relate to something in order to really be interested, and when people don't think of themselves as animals and assume we are the only species capable of intelligence and emotion, it is understandable that wildlife just doesn't seem important or interesting. Many of us who spend a lot of time with birds and wildlife believe otherwise (and there is a lot of science to support this), but without that experience it would be easier to believe the worst.
This Willet, to the untrained eye, looks like approximately 125 other bird species. Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, MT.
11 - Birding is hard. It's really hard. For a beginner, it must seem daunting, especially when looking through a book and he or she is sorting through sandpipers, sparrows, flycatchers, gulls, etc. This can make people think the starting point is more difficult and less enjoyable than it actually is.
If you want to learn more about birders in the United States, you can read this dated but quality analysis done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service right here. Hopefully FWS, or someone else (ahem, American Birding Association), will have the means and willpower to something like this again soon. There's a lot of interesting statistics in there, if you've got a minute.
Some of these obstacles to birder recruitment will never change, but there are some things we can do. The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive even wrote a piece on the subject, A Birder's Guide To Indoctrination. Take it to heart, and our
Of course, as long as there are good-looking birds around, there will be people who want to look at them. Luckily for us, the birds themselves are much better birding ambassadors than birders are. Black Tern, photographed somewhere in rural North Dakota.