Wednesday, February 29, 2012

HBP Presents: The Handicaps Of Birding



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.

7 - 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?

8 - 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. 

9 - 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 cult pastime will continue to grow.


Of course, as long as there are good-looking birds around, there are people who will 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.

25 comments:

  1. That F&W survey is interesting. Birders were rich, white, educated and married. Were they the 1%? I'm suddenly feeling the urge to vote for Romney and buy a NASCAR team. What is happening to me???

    OCCUPY CAPE MAY.

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    1. Cape May is definitely on my list of places to go. There aren't many new species I could pick up there....but it would be sick. SICK.

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  2. #8, last sentence is my favorite. The epitome of awesome. I rarely consider myself a birder although I am a bird photographer and I love observing wildlife in general. Thanks for this great read!

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    1. Thanks Kari! That sentence is all too true...

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  3. I enjoyed reading this post. It's got fun information and some interesting insights, many of which I think are dead-on, and some with which I do not quite agree. Birding definitely has an image problem, unlike that handsome cobalt blue raven you photographed. Even if birders can come off cool (and in my experiences, many co-workers and such do find it to be kind of interesting), they don't look cool. It's not a pursuit for the vain or the flashy--that's the bird's job. That's also probably why it's hard to keep it sticking with the 18-24s.

    However, I think a lot of Americans and even more birders are fairly environmentally conscious. Americans love their parks. They love recycling and "going green" (even if they're not quite sure what that means) and worrying about their carbon footprint (when that was fashionable). I'd say they're pretty good about land conservation too, right up to the point where it starts to hit them economically (America's foremost consideration).

    Bird watching seems to lack coherency as a group because a lot of the environmentalist initiatives are off-putting or uncomfortable to those milder, older, or more conservative birders, as they are to many Americans. This doesn't mean the programs themselves are bad, but they're definitely not sold very well, or else they're packaged with other, unnecessary political ideologies. I used to try going to Audubon meetings and such, but they spent much less time talking about birds than bashing politicians and complaining with little purpose. Those things are fine, but they're not really endearing or helpful to growing the pursuit. They're alienating, and I think this makes lots of birders and would-be birders just sort of switch off. They do not full involve themselves like they might otherwise, because that prospect is unpleasant given some of the vitriol with which they'd have to cope.

    Anyhow, this is a conversation I've tried to have with Ted Eubanks over at the ABA, but there doesn't seem to be much willingness to cross the political/ideological aisles, in the mainstream or in the birding world. It's too bad, because conservatives and conservationist have a lot in common, but seem to let artificial constructs and labels get in the way, or other unrelated political disagreements.

    Thanks for posting.

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    1. Compared to a lot of countries, yes there are plenty of us who do care about greeniness, and I think as time goes on more and more people feel the same way. That said, if you take a look at how many schools do not want to teach evolution and how many climate change deniers there are in office...well, we don't look so great.

      It's true, blathering about politics can even put off those who agree with you, but at the same time you are sharing information with people, which is never a bad thing to do. If, for example, my representative voted to trash the Endangered Species Act, that's something I would want to know about.

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    2. Are there really that many schools that don't teach evolution? I mean, you could say that even 1 is too many, but it can't be a very big number overall. Anyhow, I think berating our lack of greenness (not that that's what you were doing) is not very helpful in producing better results, and it likewise can actually distract us from focussing and expanding on what good is being done.

      I wish it were so simple as sharing information, sharing facts, etc. So knowing about a politician's voting record is one thing, and saying that people being ignorant of the environment makes Republicans happy is another. If I were a grumpy, well-off old fart (the sort of people whose financial support the birding/conservation community needs), I would've scoffed and switched over to reading the National Review Online (or whatever, you get the idea). But hey that's my two cents, and two cents is all I've got. (and even less sense).

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    3. I don't honestly know about the number of schools...I think they are required by law to teach it, so it's hard to say how much it's being done. It has been a constant theme in the media for the past several years...anyways, I included that tidbit it in there mostly as an example.

      What I said was that Republican LAWMAKERS, not your average citizens, are the people happy about this. It's not a matter of debate that it is the Republicans, more than any other party, that are constantly attempting to pass legislation to weaken the endangered species act, weaken air and water pollution laws, open up new oil drilling areas, prevent wilderness areas from being created, make our public land more accessible to mining and logging...the list doesn't end. In the face of this sort of thing I am more than happy to put off grumpy old farts, particularly if they are unhappy with straightforward facts. There is a very recent analysis done on this at http://www.lcv.org/scorecard/scorecardweb.pdf that illustrates all of this clearly.

      Right. But positivity is crucial! Birders in politics can do great things...the gigantic marine sanctuary created around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands seemed kind of random, considering Dubya did it...it turns out Laura Bush, a lifelong birder, had visited the area for a bit and a few years later PRESTO! A new refuge. Cheney was against it, but I guess it's hard to say no to your wife, hehe.

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    4. Here's to that. And as another add-on that cooperation is possible, I'll add that it was Richard Nixon (R), grumpiest and orneriest of presidents (and thus, obviously, my favorite president) who signed the Endangered Species Act, along with Clean Air Act, into effect.

      But to clarify, in the same way that no one is saying, "Destroy the Recyclers!" I don't think that the Repubs are targeting the environment as an enemy. No no, they only do that with countries on the other side of the world that are too poor to refine their own petroleum. Rather they've got skewed priorities for economic development, the direct consequence of which is the degradation of natural habitats. What's really distressing is the lack of concern afterwards, but then there are many many things in the government giving me stress these days...

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    5. Yes, I agree completely, and I've always wondered why Nixon did that.

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  4. Hmm.. I don't know that American's "love recycling" or going green. I do think that some Americans love these things and maybe they are so vocal about it that it seems like MOST Americans love these things...

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    1. Yeah...No one is out there saying "FUCK RECYCLING! NEVER AGAIN!".

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    2. Certainly their are the devoted and more vocal participants. But I've been continually surprised how dedicated the soccer moms and upper middle class types are with their recycling and organic produce. I do not think it's exactly genuine, or at least informed. For example, that doesn't stop them from carting around in their massive SUVs. They like it to the extent it makes them feel good and clean but doesn't cost them a lot.

      I'm not saying that is good, but it does mean those sorts of people can be easily alienated by overly demanding accusations or entreaties. I just think more subtlety is required if we want to successfully outreach.

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  5. I can see the age thing. When I was in my 20's and 30's all I wanted to do was party, sleep in and go see movies and shop. As people get older and they become empty nesters, they look for a new hobby. I never had the time to bird before. And I can see the urban thing. I lived in the city of Atlanta for years and would have sworn I never saw a single bird. Now I notice hawks everywhere when I go there to visit. Is that why they named the basketball team the "Hawks"? Duh.



    I love being able to go out and look like a nerd. (At least out in the woods).

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    1. I think that's one of the (many) appeals...a bird won't judge what you look like....and if they do, it would be hard to figure that out.

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  6. We're cool, what do you mean. Nerdy? It's the pocket protector in the pocket, not the pen, that's nerdy. The better word for the hobby might be technical. Within the wildlife profession which is cool by definition, (who wouldn't want my job) the birders are often the coolest, most die-hard, skilled or best observers of the bunch. Sadly though the birding revolution in the US is on slowburn. I was just in the UK and the birder ratio was about 10 times higher. Admittedly I was at bird sites that had reported rarities, but it was scopes to the boardwalk, hides filled, and nice cup of tea back at the rather deluxe refuge HQ/Visitor Center. "Esse est percipi" to be is to be perceived
    (G. Berkley) yes I bird and I think I'm cool.

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    1. Sorry Rev but you are not as cool as you think. The herpers are obviously way cooler. Not even close. Way more booze, way more loose women (or men, despite our machoness we don't judge) and way more late nights.

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    2. Psht late nights. I don't see you all staking out Owls...

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    3. No, just things that could kill you like rattlesnakes and pit vipers at 2AM.

      Although, happy to stop for an owl in the middle of the night if we see one.

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    4. @The Rev - You are the perpetual optimist. Don't pretend you don't know what I mean!

      @JK - I don't know that many herp people, but it's quite likely they are cooler. But when it comes to night work, I have spent so many hours crashing through the underbrush (as a bird biologist, not a birder) that it makes me sick just thinking about it. Of course, you don't have to worry about owls attacking you...

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    5. Who am I kidding. Herpes are also nerds. But nerd Internet flame wars are fun!

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    6. Damn auto correct. *herpers

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  7. Thanks for the post, Steve. (First-time commenter, long-time reader.) I started birdwatching a couple years ago (in my mid-30s) because it's cheaper than therapy.
    My conversion experience was seeing the warbler migration on the s. side of Lake Erie in May. And you're right, being a new birder is indeed daunting. (Effing sparrows). I am still the worst.
    And the key part of #5 is "apathy about the life around us" and didn't require any defense: there's no denying that one end of the political spectrum is far more likely to focus on the virtues of the individual or Business over the natural or public.
    Anyway, thanks for these cultural pieces. It's a weird scene out there, especially for someone new.

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    1. Yes, the weirdness never ends. These people (we people) are bizarre.

      Sparrows actually aren't too bad after a while...

      Nice profile name, btw.

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  8. I've always been interested in birds. In my teens I was in the closet over it. It was the Jane Hathaway Effect. Remember her? On the Beverley Hillbillies? Ya, I did NOT want to be perceived that way!

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