Critique of the Federal Birding Report

In 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis.” It was created as an addendum to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. They claim it’s the most extensive survey of wildlife recreation in the U.S. to date.

“Overall, about 9,300 detailed wildlife-watching interviews were completed with a response rate of 67 percent. The Survey focused on 2011 participation and expenditures by U.S. residents 16 years of age and older.” – USFWS

The stated mission was ambitious.

“The following report provides up-to-date information so birders and policy makers can make informed decisions regarding the management of birds and their habitats. This report identifies who birders are…how avid they are…In addition to demographic information, this report also provides an economic measure of birding. It estimates how much birders spend on their hobby and the economic impact of these expenditures.

By understanding who birders are, they can be more easily reached and informed about pressures facing birds and bird habitats. Conversely, by knowing who is likely not a birder, or who is potentially a birder, information can be more effectively tailored. The economic values presented here can be used by resource managers and policy makers to demonstrate the economic might of birders, the value of birding – and by extension, the value of birds.” – Report 2011-1

When birders actually read the report, the first statistic they were confronted with was what seemed to be a gross overestimation of their community size: they estimated bird watchers to number 47 million in the U.S., which would be 20% of the national population! Here, I actually think the semantic difference is important: it has come up that “birdwatcher” and “birder” likely have, at least, different connotations if not different definitions. Birdwatcher is a dated term, and I think thus has the connotation at the very least that it indicates a less rigorous activity than the hobby of birding. Indeed, that’s what the survey seems to measure, though they use the terms interchangeably.

“The National Survey uses a conservative definition. To be counted as a birder, an individual must have either taken a trip one mile or more from home for the primary purpose of observing birds and/or closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home…Backyard birding or watching birds around the home is the most common form of bird-watching. Eighty-eight percent (41 million) of birders are backyard birders. The more active form of birding, taking trips away from home, is less common with 38 percent (18 million) of birders partaking.” – Erin Carver

In other words, people who watch their feeders with a bird guide make the cut, and this is strongly reflected in the original report (to which the addendum was made). They count almost 1/3rd of the U.S. population as wildlife watchers, the overwhelming majority being those that feed birds and/or other types of wildlife. Most people who call themselves birders would disagree that this definition is conservative; by contrast, this definition is the most liberal end possible. While it is indeed heartening that that many people care about birds, my communication with other birders has led us to an estimate closer to between 250,000-300,000 birders in the US.

The study used this data to extrapolate demographic information about what they call birding. Part of that was location, where they seem to favor raw numbers over participation: they say the average birder is southern, though the 1st southern state in participation ranking is 17th. They also made an attempt to measure what we’re traveling to see:

“Seventy-five percent of away-from-home birders reported observing waterfowl (ducks, geese, etc.), making those the most watched type of bird. Birds of prey (hawks, eagles, etc.) were also popular with 72 percent of birders watching them, followed in popularity by songbirds such as cardinals and robins (68 percent) and other water birds such as herons and shorebirds (60 percent).”

Going back to the original survey, and the suspected bias in targeting sportsmen, I found that 57% of hunters and 51% of anglers also put themselves in the wildlife watching category, making 29% of the wildlife watchers surveyed either hunters or fishers (or both). This helps explain the overwhelming representation of waterfowl-watching as the main target of birding. The accuracy of these representations ultimately bear on the conclusions at the end, namely the economic impact of birders.

I think this calls for a more specific survey effort to better quantify and define birders, and thus assess their impact, both current and potential. It may thus be best to take a tiered approach, from what birders would consider their community up to the levels addressed by the federal report. In other words, it would mean a “scaling up” from populating what birders would call birders, to everyone that feeds birds in their backyard and watches said feeders. I think identifying subgroups within this number would elucidate special interests, needs, concerns and ultimately economic potential.

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